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
    +3

    Comment number 264.

    "259.
    Happy_Brit
    7 Minutes ago
    ................ As one of the millions in the country who have no reasonable access to rail services ,even if I could afford them, I fail to see why I should pay extra tax to support the mainly commuters who use the railways."

    On that basis I presume you sail your very own Trident submarine in the bath?

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 263.

    Dr. Wellings is right. The system should have been sold off in a way that left operators with total control of their patch. I mean sold and not franchised. The present system is the result of a botched operation intended to maximise the treasury's take, not give a workable op
    eration. Nationalisation in 1948 was a bad idea - privatisation in the way it was done was worse

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 262.

    As it stands at the moment, it is a farce. BR had its problems, but privatisation was not the reason safety and efficiency improved. That was computers and more awareness that did that! Nationalised rail not working? perhaps the govt' should have looked to france, the US, Japan, and other countries to see how it should have been run. before jumping off the deepend with the half assed privatisation

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 261.

    Yes, look at Deutsch Bahn, owned 100% by the German Taxpayer and it's one of the most successful Railway companies in the world, they even own EWS! So there is no reason why a state owned railway can't be even more successful than a private one.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 260.

    I do like the concept of the nation 'owning' major public infrastructure services such as the railways.
    .
    However, the government and the never changing civil service are just not competent enough to even hope that they won't screw up (eg the CSA, the NHS systems project, defence procurement...need I go on?)
    .
    I simply can't see an answer at all!

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 259.

    reading all the comments you could almost believe that British Rail made a profit not that it was always subsidised by the taxpayer. As one of the millions in the country who have no reasonable access to rail services ,even if I could afford them, I fail to see why I should pay extra tax to support the mainly commuters who use the railways.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 258.

    The railways latterly were under state ownership while successive governments were pandering to, and benefiting from, an all-powerful roads lobby. BR didn't stand a chance. I'd like to think that a re-nationalisation would be under a more enlightened attitude, but I can't see it happening sadly.

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 257.

    Lots of blind socialist dogma, nationalise this, nationalise that, blah blah, thinking it is a panacea for success

    And run for the public good ? Anybody living through the 70s knows how wrong you are & how short your memory is. It was a tool of union bosses

    Yes the current rail system has its faults but it is far more efficient than the railway of 1970 & the staff get paid more

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 256.

    Yes, and a sell off of the BBC should pay for it

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 255.

    British Rail was appalling. I know lots of people are too young to remember that, but it really was horrible, you can't imagine. Re-nationalize the railways? God help me, No.

    Go the other way, SELL the rights. If operators break rules, i.e. charge too much or invest too little, the govt. can take back control. What we have now is a fudge, a halfway house, and it doesn't work.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 254.

    The "railway" was effectively renationalised in 2002, under Network Rail, a not for profit company, no shareholders, and it pretty much does as directed by the DfT. I guess the article is really about the "trains", your headline is misleading.

    Bob Crow also knows that virtually all the 3200 workers he is talking about are protected under TUPE Regulations, only the uniforms will change.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 253.

    For me, the whole concept of privatisation is to introduce the element of choice. This never happened on the railways. If I want to travel to Lancaster and I don't like Virgin trains service it's tough. It's a privatised monopoly - where is the motivation to improve versus the service provided by a competitor? The very concept is utterly flawed.

  • Comment number 252.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 251.

    I came down from Glasgow to London on an urgent and unexpected emergency. Virgin were brilliant and very helpful- the service, food, trains were great. Very fast too.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 250.

    You've got to be mad. The whole farce that has unfolded these past few weeks has been the fault of government bureaucracy and regulation, and will cost us millions. Virgin have been running an outstanding service, and we shouldn't forget the nightmare that was British Rail. State interference is the problem, not the solution.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 249.

    I see the I love Maggie, lets destroy the economy just for spite, fan club are out in numbers

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 248.

    Bring the network and franchises ( as they expire ) into existing East Coast arrangement. Exclude bureaucrats and politicians from any intererence - compare cost / quality / employee benefit, job satisfaction of state / independent education ... Q.E.D.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 247.

    things were NOT bad under public ownership. Yes they took a bit longer perhaps but at least they were run for the public good and not simply as an exercise in making rich people even richer.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 246.

    Judging by the way that the Government runs everything else. No, thanks.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 245.

    There are more people than ever using the railways despite them being more expensive and it only goes to show that the Beeching cuts 50 years ago was the most destructive act on the infrastructure in the 20th century. As for whether railways should be in the public or private sector, the bottom line is actually how much investment goes into it and benefits the economy as a whole.

 

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