Telegraph Debate: Should the railways be put back into public ownership?

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‘Unnecessary privatisation was a clear case of ideology’.

Dr John Carlisle, retired businessman and academic

Doreram dore and Totley Station which is getting a new park and ride car park

Doreram dore and Totley Station which is getting a new park and ride car park

Let us start by asking the question – why was it privatised in the first place in 1994?

The three rail networks, Regional Railways, Network SouthEast and InterCity were all designed to meet three sets of passengers, rather than be geographically based – as every good business should be. InterCity not only made a profit every year for the six preceding privatisation; it also ran more trains at 100mph than any other rail company in Europe. All this at investment levels 25 per cent below the £225 million needed to sustain service levels.

At that time BR itself had engineering works that produced its own rolling stock, including the world-beating HST engines and Mark III coaches, the products of a superb engineering culture and workshops. It also electrified the East Coast line ahead of schedule and at half the cost of the West Coast project 20 years earlier.

Customer ratings for InterCity were at 95 per cent, with demand increasing while operating expenses had dropped by 20 per cent in 10 years. So why was it necessary to privatise it? It was not necessary. It was a clear case of ideology over reality. For the Tories, private business was axiomatically better than public service. The state had to be shrunk. BR was a juicy target, as was social housing, water, energy et al.

The result for BR passengers was an immediate fall in service and safety levels, epitomised by four serious crashes between 1999 and 2002. Much of this was due to breaking the railways up into Railtrack which handled the infrastructure and engineering, and Train Operating Companies, a decision of crass stupidity matched only by the breaking up of InterCity into smaller businesses.

Anyone who has run a big business knows that it is a system of interdependent parts that is run most effectively through collaboration.

In 2014 the train operators paid over £200 million to their shareholders while the taxpayer subsidised them to the tune of £4 billion. As for customer service, just look at Southern Rail. On the other hand, East Coast, the only UK-owned railway, returned £16 million to the Treasury that year. It has now been re-privatised. That makes a sturdy case for renationalising the railways.

‘What matters is how the network performs’

Dr Peter Hayward, chairman, Friends of Dronfield Station

Britain’s railways have always been an easy target for complaints and grumbles but to focus on nationalisation or privatisation per se is to ask the wrong question.

What matters to passengers is not who runs the railways, but how they perform. The franchise system is supposed to promote competition (bringing better services) but the reality is that for most journeys, especially locally, there is only one choice of operator.

The real competition is with roads – both public transport and private cars.

So how might the railways be improved? Firstly, recognise that the railway is a national network, not a conglomeration of isolated units. What one operator does (or doesn’t do) impacts directly on the network and other operators. Consider also confusing fare structures: why it is sometimes much cheaper to book a long journey in two halves rather than in one go? Surely therefore, the way forward is to all work together in co-operation, not isolation. This can be achieved independently from ‘ownership’.

Secondly, work together to put customers first. Customers lost disadvantage everyone; customers retained and won benefit users, operators and the future success of the railways.

Rail North has been established to oversee the development of local and regional services. New franchise operators, Northern and TransPennine Express, have put forward transformational plans for improvements.

Another major development has been the recognition and growth of the community rail movement, both at local level through ‘station adoption’ and, on specified lines, a Community Rail Partnership.

Both give local people a voice and a chance to make a difference.

‘Northern taxpayers subsidise the south’

Chris Bell, chair, Don Valley Railway

Being the chair of Don Valley Railway – a campaign to reintroduce passenger trains on the freight line to Stocksbridge – I am very interested in many rail issues.

But I am not convinced bringing back the British Rail sandwich will necessarily yield benefits.

I would prefer instead a little more local autonomy for rail services.

Perhaps they could extend the remit of Sheffield Supertram to run a mini-franchise on the national rail network so that trains could operate to the agenda of the new City Region or local need.

I think by slating Richard Branson as a capitalistic fat controller, Jeremy Corbyn is wide of the mark and if he wishes to nationalise the rail franchises one-by-one, he will only discover a more evil capitalist empire in the form of the banks who own the rolling stock leasing companies that make a lot of money out of renting cattle trucks otherwise known as Pacer trains.

Local improvements such as the Rotherham tram-train, Hope Valley line upgrade, and Midland main line electrification are years behind schedule.

However in London, mega-projects costing zillions such as Crossrail – a 118-kilometre railway line under development in the capital and the home counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex – go ahead, not to mention the debacle over ensuring that HS2 avoids Sheffield at all cost.

I am of the opinion that the rail industry expects northern taxpayers to subsidise long distance southern commuters’ journeys to work. Localise rather than nationalise.

‘Trains should not be run to make a profit’

Jeremy Brooke, partner at SSB Law and rail commuter

Britain’s railways should be renationalised. We are told the railways have been privatised, but according to the Office of Road and Rail in 2014/15 Government funded the rail industry to the tune of £10 million per day.

This means that, without £3.5 billion of public money, the rail companies would not be able to operate profitably. Some of that money ends up in shareholders’ pockets. That money could and, in my view, should be spent on the railways.

I can hear people groaning at the thought of nationalisation and many will hark back to the days of strikes, dirty trains and dilapidated stations. Some will say that only private companies would have been able to bring about the changes that we see on our railways. But I’m not talking about 1970s nationalisation – the world has moved on and moved on significantly. I am talking about a progressive industry operated under new rules.

Private industry focuses simply on share price. While the profitability of a minor route is the only concern of shareholders, a nationalised industry can focus on the ability of that same line to serve a community. To link small communities with large centres of employment. To provide greater access to recreational activities. To bring in visitors. Each objective creating a flow of benefits that outweighs the cost of the service itself.

However, trains need to be linked with other public transport systems if we are to truly reap the rewards. Take the interchange at Meadowhall. If we had similar hubs around the region, where integrated timetables made transport around the region almost seamless, public transport would be much easier to use and therefore much more used.

Our culture of privatisation and profit benefits a minority. Transport is an essential in an effective society. The social, economic and environmental advantages should outweigh the need for profit.