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
    +4

    Comment number 164.

    "153.PaulG

    The unions prevented modernisation and improved customer service years ago, all they cared about was themselves with their greed, blocking tactics and left wing agenda."

    Funny, I was there - a reluctant (to start with) member of the NUR and the Union was fully on-board with resignaling, electrification, HST and APT. There were Trots, Militant Tendency etc, no one took them seriously.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 163.

    Basically the subsidies go to pay the profits of the train operating companies. They make profits on the mainlines and keep them. We subsidisise the loss making branchlines so it doesn't affect the profits. So if the profits go to pension funds and other investors, the subsidies we pay ends up in their pockets. The model is flawed. It's towering achievement is the crazy fare structure. Says it all

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 162.

    After the war, BR was a seriously underfunded running a relic driven into the ground as part of the war infrastructure, while other countries had to rebuild from scratch and adopted electrification, we were running steam trains and Deltics.

    We need to stop splitting up the system - we need to integrate and invest in a co-ordinated unified transport system - an anathema to all political parties.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 161.

    Nationalisation would possible be the best thing to happen to the railways a non profit organisation, providing a PUBLIC transport. We all knew that back in the day British Rail was not always perfect, but lets be honest if the we nationalised the railways it's not going to end up going back to how it was in the 70's and 80s and I think that's what makes people so sceptical.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 160.

    @GBC
    "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."

    Actually, Britain's worst rail crash was in 1915 at Quintinshill (ironically on the WCML) where 227 people were killed, a full 32 years before nationalisation when the railways were very much in PRIVATE hands. Try google, it's wonderful :)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 159.

    "Alan Critchley
    Despite always voting Tory, (UKIP next time), I've come to believe that certain core items in society should be state owned because prices can get out of hand. I believe that water, electricity, gas and railways should be state owned."

    So it would fair to describe you as a socialist of the national variety?

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 158.

    This is nothing to do with Bob Crowe or any of the rail unions. It is about a privatised system of running the railways which has patently failed. Renationalisation would not mean civil servants in charge. It would mean a railway run by professional railwaymen, not accountants and lawyers. It is a no-brainer. The railways should be re-nationalised. Now.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 157.

    People talk about vast subsidies but that's only on some lines. The big main lines have to give vast sums to the government for the pleasure of running the railways for them. It's a sort of extra taxation on the Inter City traveller, subsidising the loss making commuter lines. Maybe full privatisation with no government meddling, making the commuter pay full cost is the way to go.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 156.

    100% for re-nationalisation, the fragmentation has been a disaster.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 155.

    The current system is the worst of both worlds. It current franchising system results in train companies in most cases running a monopoly over that line. A result passengers do not get the benefit of lower fares or improved service that competition would provide while allowing private companies to make considerable profits at passengers expenses.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 154.

    149. Mike
    Two Train Operators, TOC's? Fine. Who man's the stations? TOC A or TOC B? Who's passengers would get better treated by the station staff? It's not as simple as it sounds.

  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 153.

    The unions prevented modernisation and improved customer service years ago, all they cared about was themselves with their greed, blocking tactics and left wing agenda. OK privatize but keep the unions and Bob Crow well away!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 152.

    For a sustainable transport policy in view of the world's oil resources failing over the next century we need a nationalised railway system with significant investment, free of private motive which merely skims off profit. However no politician seems to be able to look beyond the next five years or think of the country's long term future, instead concentrating on personal or party political gain.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 151.

    Ether you renationalise - fully.
    or you Privatise - fully.

    The system of state capitalism we have now benefits no-one but the corrupt.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 150.

    East Coast is ran far better than Virgin trains and First Scotrail, with cheaper fairs so surely the best thing to do would be to bring the WCML back into public ownership as well.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 149.

    We need proper privatisation whereby there are at least TWO providers on any popular journey. This will allow travellers to CHOOSE who they go with.

    Also get rid of all subsidies. If you want to travel pay the true cost of it. This of course should apply to the roads and air as well.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 148.

    Privatising the railways in reality is not an option! Bob Crow is not the man to give a realistic alternative to privatisation especially when he uses language to declare that "ticket offices and stations (are) being smashed up by the politicians and their business allies".Thats hardly the case! We, need to be able to trust our elected representatives to ensure a fair and true bid process.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 147.

    Despite always voting Tory, (UKIP next time), I've come to believe that certain core items in society should be state owned because prices can get out of hand. I believe that water, electricity, gas and railways should be state owned.

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 146.

    It's a well known fact that Britain's railways now cost 5 times as much to run as they did in BR days. If BR had been given 5 times what they were given we would have the best railway in the world by now. The only people to benefit from this marvellous privatisation are the shareholders of First, Stagecoach etc. politicians (not my fault) and Dutch, German and French railways who own most of it.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 145.

    although the thought of that knuckledragger Crow getting his hands on a national network is too scarey to comprehend!

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

    As opposed to the greed and chaos of 60's throwback Crow and his thugs cause. Its a really hard choice. Any chance of nationalising but not including the unions?

 

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