Rail nationalisation? Our railways are in better shape than before franchising

Rail nationalisation? Our railways are in better shape than before franchising

by Tom Harris
article from Friday 31, August, 2018

NO ONE who advocates the current, part-privatised model of railways that currently exists in Britain can expect to receive an easy ride. I found this out last week when I published a report– commissioned and paid for (full disclosure) by Abellio, which owns the ScotRail franchise – on the Scottish network. 

“Is Scotland on the right track?” aims to take a dispassionate, objective view of what has actually been achieved by ScotRail, both since the current operator took charge in 2015, and in the longer term, going back to the start of devolution in 1999.

While most of my audience – the Scottish Government, transport professionals and railway enthusiasts – welcomed at least parts of the report and acknowledged I had raised some issues worthy of further consideration, the knee-jerk response by those with an anti-privatisation (and indeed anti-private sector) agenda was less friendly. One senior trade unionist, the general secretary of TSSA, even went so far as to launch a personal attack on me, welcoming the fact that I had recently resigned as a member of the Labour Party (or “Labour family” as he called it – I wouldn’t want to be sitting round that Christmas table).

This latter criticism was, in fact, very illuminating. Both the TSSA union and the Daily Recordcast doubt on my Labour Party credentials because of the report’s support for the franchise system. And yet there is nothing in what I wrote that wasn’t entirely compatible with the last Labour government’s railway policy. Counter-intuitively, the privatisation of the railway industry by John Major’s government, cack-handed and badly done as it undoubtedly was, turned into one of the Labour government’s outstanding successes.

There are two main criticisms levelled at the current franchise system. The first is that foreign-owned companies – often state-owned  – are allowed to run services in Britain and funnel huge amounts of passengers’ cash back to the wallets and purses of people who don’t even live here. As I point out in the report, Abellio actually put its hand in its own pocket to fund ScotRail during the first two years of this franchise. If a public sector operator, rather than a private company, had taken over in 2015, where would that (substantial amount of) money have come from? I think we know, don’t we?

The second charge against ScotRail (and every other private provider) is that service performance is too low. In this, the critics are correct. Too many services each day are cancelled or don’t arrive when they’re supposed to. But more than half of delays to ScotRail services are caused by the company that owns the tracks and signalling equipment, Network Rail – a wholly publicly owned and publicly accountable organisation. Are we really being asked to believe that those delays would not occur if the trains, as well as the tracks, were operated by the government instead of a professional, experienced private operator? Why?

ScotRail does have to improve its performance, however, and a large proportion of delays are its own responsibility. Thanks to the strictures of the franchise agreement itself, there is no shortage of pressures, political and financial, on the company to improve things, which is why they’ve gone to considerable lengths to do so. Would a publicly-owned company, guaranteed to be the provider in 10 or 20 years’ time –  whatever its performance, be as responsive?

The one criticism never made of the franchise system is that it has allowed passenger patronage to fall. That’s because the opposite is the case. However you wish to explain it, a doubling of the number of passenger miles on Britain’s rail network has coincided with the introduction of the franchise system and an influx of private money, competitive abilities and skills. By all means make international comparisons: in the Netherlands, the number of passenger rail journeys increased by 10 per cent between 1998 and 2013. In Germany, that figure was 23 per cent. In France it was 25 per cent.

In Britain, the number of journeys undertaken in the same period increased by 60 per cent.

There are lots of factors that have contributed to this startling figure, the growth of the economy throughout most of that time being one of them. But it would be a brave transport planner who attributed none of that success, none of that transformation, to the fact that private companies, rather than the old British Rail, now provide passenger services.

The reason I was happy to write my report was that I am frustrated that many, if not all, of the fashionable arguments in favour of nationalisation are based on fallacy, not facts. The franchise system, it goes without saying, has not been an unalloyed success. But to deny the measurable successes that there have been, to deny that our railway industry is in far better shape than it was under public ownership, is to deny the facts. And good public policy does not emerge from such a deception.

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