Frankly, I don’t care who owns the railways. My concern is whether they are run efficiently and provide a good, reliable service, at a fair price. Furthermore, I suspect most people, other than the ideologues, will agree. The apparent popularity of renationalising the railways is almost certainly because many people feel that they’re not getting a good reliable service at a fair price. But will renationalisation solve their problem? Personally, I doubt it very much.
I’m old enough to remember “British Rail”. To say, “it was absolutely dreadful” would be a huge understatement. It suffered from very serious under investment in track, rolling stock and technology. All to often, trains were old, uncomfortable, cramped, dirty and unreliable. The Beaching cuts in the 1960’s, which occurred under both Conservative and Labour governments, decimated the network, leaving many communities isolated.
I’m the last person to suggest that today’s railway service is a beacon of success. Substantial improvements are undoubtedly needed. However, since privatisation, investment in the railways has increased massively. The network is carrying more than double the numbers of people it was carrying when it was privatised in the mid 1990s; and reported satisfaction levels have also been increasing over the same period. A significant amount of recent disruption has been caused by strike action, orchestrated by the rail unions. And it’s fair to question whether this is part of a strategy, by the ideologues, to create dissatisfaction, thus furthering the cause of renationalisation.
During the post war years, in addition to the nationalisation of the railways, a number of other core industries, such as steel, coal and shipbuilding were also nationalised by both the Attlee government in the late 1940s and the Wilson government in the 1960s. There is not one example of a successful outcome. At the very best, none of those industries was saved by nationalisation and at the worst, nationalisation could be deemed to have accelerated their demise.
The fundamental problem is that governments are absolutely hopeless at running large, complex commercial enterprises; and this applies to both Labour and Conservative administrations. They don’t have the skills and they are constantly prioritising political outcomes rather than meeting customer needs. Furthermore, investment decisions have to take their place in the queue alongside health, education, welfare etc.. Invariably they tend to draw the short straw.
The role of government should be to provide a robust and effective regulatory framework, within which privatised rail operators focus on providing the levels of service that the rail user requires.
Renationalisation of the railways is a road to nowhere and a distraction from the strategies that are needed to ensure the rail companies deliver the service we all need.