You may not have noticed but our railway system is in a wee bit of an omnishambolic mess. The recent franchise fracas regarding the West Coast rail tender cost the government upwards of £50 million. Going back further in time, the collapse of National Express on the East Coast rail franchise put a £1.4 billion dent in the Department for Transport’s budget only two years after GNER did the same thing on the very same line. Yes, this plan seems to have gone brilliantly. So much so that train fares are rising faster than inflation at an average of 4.2% and customer satisfaction is a slumping 46%. With all this success in mind, we’d be wrong to even consider an alternative to the railway status quo.
But there is one. Nationalisation. In the past this has always gone badly right? Wrong. British Rail – and to a rather large extent Network Rail – went badly. Nationalisation was given a bad name to say the least, but British Rail was buried long ago with the Railways Act of 1993. 20 years ago, in fact.
We keep allowing its ghost to walk the rails, scaring us off ever challenging the Franchise system for a fear of returning to the bad old days of soggy sandwiches and aging locomotives. Unfortunately, it leads us to ignore nationalised successes right under our very nose.
The East Coast main line, the line that caused the aforementioned franchise foul up was nationalised in 2009 after National Express left it for dead, saying that it would be impossible to make a profit on that line. Two years later – coincidentally the same amount of time it took for National Express to fail – the East Coast posted a pre-tax profit of £182.8 million; £177 million of that went back to the Department of Transport and the rest actually made its way to the Treasury. Fancy that, a successful company that actually pays its taxes. Passenger numbers rose by 3% and first class passengers rose by an amazing 24%. This is no British Rail 2.0; this is a modern, competitive state owned company that is actually succeeding in the modern world.
It is not the only state owned success story. For perhaps an even larger example of an effective nationalised rail system, we must look to the Germans. Deutsche Bahn, the state owned company that operates the German Railways and owns Arriva and CrossCountry in Britain, posted an operating profit in 2012 of €2.7 billion. They have announced 500 million euros will also be reinvested in an already highly advanced infrastructure. Their ultra fast ICE trains are the envy of trainspotters across Europe, with a long distance fleet of only 9 years old on average. It is profit-making, not profiteering. Surely this proves that nationalisation does not necessarily lead to the zombies of British Rail-like troubles to arise from the grave and walk the rails once more. It is a slight shame that Britain, the country that gave the world the locomotive, is being held to ransom by such a fear, and in hesitating has been left stuck on the rails.
The railways should not be governed by ideology, but by practicality. Due to the nature of trains, true competition is virtually impossible. While two buses of different companies can share one piece of road, if you do that with one piece of track…well anyone who has ever watched Thomas the Tank Engine will tell you that doesn’t end well. Instead, Britain has opted for a horrible compromise when we have state guaranteed private monopolies on our railways lines. There is no competition and there is no fairness. Complicated maths and a dodgy tendering system leave the whole process of the franchise closed from public view. If the public do not like the outcome of the process, it’s not like they can just change provider. This is not true privatisation; this is not even true competition. It was an ideological experiment that has gone very wrong.
I like trains. Especially ones that are on time and do not cost a fortune. While privatisation may have worked in other areas, the form it takes with the franchise system has failed our rail users. For us to go forward, we need to learn from the problems of British Rail and from the successes of the East Coast and Deutsche Bahn. Nationalisation can work. Besides at the end of the day, if the train turns up when it’s supposed to, if the ticket hasn’t merited a second mortgage and if it’s not packed to the last bit of standing room, does anyone actually care who the operator is?
Alexandra Bobbi White is a Liberal Youth member from Galloway, in her fifth year of high school. You can follow her on twitter at @theweeyin96.
This article is solely the view of the author and should not be taken as the views of Liberal Youth, the Liberal Democrats, nor the editorship of the Libertine.