West Coast Main Line row: Should railways be renationalised?

A Virgin train passes along the West Coast Main Line route near Abington on 29 August Should Britain's railways be returned to public ownership?

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The collapse of the West Coast Main Line bidding process, after the government found significant flaws, has once again sparked calls in some quarters to renationalise Britain's railways - 17 years after they were privatised.

FirstGroup had been due to take over the running of the line from current operator Virgin Trains in December, but now the competition will have to be re-run after the government scrapped its decision on the franchise.

Here two transport experts argue the case for and against.

AGAINST: Dr Richard Wellings, head of transport, Institute of Economic Affairs

In many ways the railways have been successful over the last 15 years, with significant growth in passenger numbers and freight. Several routes have been upgraded, ageing trains have been replaced and safety has continued to improve.

Dr Richard Wellings, head of transport, Institute of Economic Affairs Dr Richard Wellings says changes are needed but a private rail industry is still the way forward

Taxpayer subsidies have, however, reached unacceptable levels, at around £5bn a year. And costs are much higher than on comparable networks abroad.

In reality, the railways were not privatised properly. Politicians and officials retained tight control. As the current West Coast debacle shows, the government decides who runs the trains. It also decides levels of service, controls prices and determines the priorities for investment.

This is not genuine privatisation. Rail firms are essentially subcontractors for the state. And the high costs of the railways flow directly from these high levels of government involvement.

In particular, the government has imposed a complex artificial structure on the industry. The railways are suffocated by unnecessary bureaucracy. Highly paid lawyers, accountants, consultants and civil servants have benefited at the expense of taxpayers and passengers.

A further shift toward nationalisation would only make this worse. Nationalised industries are hugely inefficient and quickly become a drain on the economy, as we know from bitter experience in the 1960s and 1970s. Politicians would exert even more control over the railways, squandering money to buy off special interests and wasting yet more billions on uneconomic vanity projects.

In the 19th Century private firms built and operated a vast network without massive handouts from taxpayers. A similarly innovative and entrepreneurial private rail industry is the best way to improve outcomes and reduce costs. In particular, the same firms should be free to own the tracks and run the trains, as happened in the past. This is the best way of removing the political interference that is holding the industry back.

FOR: Bob Crow, general secretary, RMT

The sheer scale of the chaos over the botched award of the West Coast Main Line franchise played out in the media must have shocked even those who thought that the insanity of rail privatisation could not plumb any further depths.

RMT leader Bob Crow Bob Crow says now is the time for renationalisation

Some 3,200 workers on the [West Coast] line, and hundreds more on associated fleet and service contracts, have been left hanging by a thread. Many of them live and work in areas with a rich and proud tradition as a cornerstone of the British railway industry. The reputation of Britain as the nation that gave the railways to the world has been dragged through the mud by this unmitigated and costly shambles.

Leave aside for a moment the corporate Punch and Judy show between First Group and Virgin and the Whitehall farce that even a scriptwriter on Yes Minister would have ditched as too ridiculous. This fiasco shines the spotlight on the greed and self-serving that has robbed billions in profits and dividends from our railways since privatisation two decades ago.

Now, at last, the vast majority of people are waking up to that cold, hard fact. Recent polls show 70% now support the RMT call for full renationalisation. Online polls show that figure at closer to 90%. The entire political class, including the Labour Party, need to be dragged out of their stupor on this central issue.

With fares set to rise by up to 11% in January to boost private profits, thousands of jobs at risk from the McNulty rail review cuts and ticket offices and stations being smashed up by the politicians and their business allies, the time for renationalisation is here right now.

With the East Coast run efficiently and safely in public hands, and contributing hundreds of millions back to the Treasury and investing in services rather than private profits, the West Coast should be next with the rest to follow under one, single, publicly owned and integrated umbrella.

Bring back British Rail? As an alternative to the greed and chaos on our railways laid bare over the past week? You bet.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    What, so that the taxpayer pays for it's upkeep? Don't we do that anyway with the cost of tickets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    one of the biggest issue with the trains is the staff.
    whether or not it's private or public they need to sack loads of them.I find them to be rude,arrogant and can be quite abusive,especially if you've misplaced your ticket coming up to the barriers!you get accused of fraud and all sorts.Arriva trains are rubbish, with over paid useless staff by the bucket load.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Under a specifically RAIL (only) executive with a realistic mandate and funding, yes.
    There is no point if the road lobby can intefere (Which caused the collapse in the first place, Mr Marples....?)
    Rail will become increasingly important as population increases and fuel supply dwindles.A return to an integrated network and vehicles policy, rather than the current segregated system, makes sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    British Rail was actually improving and doing well when Major led us into this fiasco of privatisation. In his defence this isn't the plan John Major had imagined; he had wanted a return to the big four (LMS, GWR etc) which would have made some sense. But either way, this system is useless, expensive and unfair, and needs renationalising and running as an entire system efficiently and effectively

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The railways are not really privatised; they still receive huge public subsidies. This means private profiteering is underwritten by the taxpayer. So they might as well formalise this by renationalising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I’d have thought the very obvious answer is ‘no’: If the public sector is incapable of managing a bidding process for the West Coast Line franchise, then what hope of them actually managing the whole West Coast Line operation successfully? Clearly, none. Anyone would think that Virgin and FirstGroup were to blame here…

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I think we in the UK need to do go to the Swiss and ask them how do it. As anyone who has travelled by train in Switzerland will know: The trains are immaculate , run on time and are staffed by extremely helpful and smart staff. And you can turn up on the day and buy a ticket with needing a re-mortgage. Why can we not replicate this in the Uk?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    well if the private companies receive money from the taxpayer, then how are they private?

    re nationalise and save the taxpayers money

    from what I hear, it can`t be much worse for the traveller

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Dr Richard Wellings' comment "In the 19th Century private firms built and operated a vast network without massive handouts from taxpayers." may be technically true, the many of the companies that were supposed to build railways didn't and went bankrupt due to speculation or were simply used for committing acts of fraud, and the "Railway Mania" ruined people's lives by destroying their savings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    BR could be awful, but so's the present set-up. Transport infrastructure should be nationalised not subject to greedy shareholders' demands. Rail privatisation has brought little of the benefits promised to so many.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I recently retired from the railway after 37 years so I know what I am talking about. In April 1992 BR began a customer-led organisation split into 2 freight and 3 passenger companies. 3 days later the Tories were returned with a mandate to privatise the railways. Had they privatised BR as a whole then that would have been okay but they way the did it was all wrong divorcing wheel from rail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I would not try to defend the franchising fiasco but he should get his facts right.

    The worst rail crash was at Clapham in 1988. Private disregard for safety?

    No! At that time the railways were under the control of BritishRail.

    Equally, it would be interesting to know if Mr Crow would require the taxpayer to pay his members extra money to just do their job, as he did during the recent Olympics

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    The people who are against nationalisation of any company/utility, always roll out the old chestnut of 'remember the days of British Leyland/British Rail etc.' This isn't the 60's and 70's any more, and the unions are no longer as powerful as they were (about the only thing Thatcher got right).

    Re-nationalise, ASAP!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    The wonderful Mr. Branson who has taken out £200million from Virgin Trains in dividends. Imagine how many improvements you could make with that! e.g. change the interiors of those horrid Pendolinos!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    # Dave__G

    Actually commercial pressure and the cost of not being able to run trains anywhere forced conversion of the wide guage to what is now standard guage. Over the last Ce the state has pretty much ended up with the railway it deserved; setting prices in the 20th Ce and requiring them to be published (perfect for road hauliers to then undercut and remove business) to todays monoploy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Wellings says
    "In the 19th Century private firms built and operated a vast network without massive handouts from taxpayers. "

    But neglects to admit that they all went bust.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    How about the Gov set up its own ROSCO and lease trains to the compnies at cost, this would bring down some of the huge costs the Banks are making a killing leasing 25 year old trains they got on the cheap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Renationalise the railway but run by experienced business people not politicos or civil servants with three principles, safety,service and technology! Lower fares where possible but not at the expense of the three principles and no money going to treasury or helping special interests. Only concern of new company is employees and passengers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    No. BR was awful, and what about the rest. Remember BT with all its phone boxes out of order because they never emptied the coins, gas "service" was a huge joke and the Post Office, still nationalised, is expensive with lousy service. Bob Crow belongs in the age of the dinosaurs and should be treated as one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I love how the mantra of private industry knows best is clearly lacking with the rail network.
    If the rail industry is meant to be run by the private industry then why do we hand over 5billion a year!
    it's a very efficient system at robbing the tax payer to pay for bonuses and dividends.


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