The Railways – Nationalise, Privatise, or Leave Well Alone?

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As a nation, we’ve just experienced the more minor of our twice-annually media showcase of lying with statistics. This is not to say that the media don’t get up to this sort of thing all the time, but there seems to be one issue on which they amp everything up to provide a veritable showcase of statistical manipulation and misleading infographics. I am talking, of course, about rail fares. The full-scale onslaught on reporting ethics and most extreme abandonment of even the barest pretence of attempting to report statistics accurately occurs in January, when the fares actually go up (it never fails to bring me back down to earth after a lovely Christmas week by reminding me that we are about to embark upon yet another year in which the sovereign people of our democracy will make their decisions based upon such extreme misinformation) but there’s always a minor spat of scaremongering and misreporting around this time of year, when next year’s increases are announced.

I’m sure you know the drill. Fares will either go up by inflation plus 1%, as has been the plan since 1996, or they will be frozen in real terms and just go up by inflation (as has happened more frequently in recent years, and will probably happen again sometime soon, as the government responds to the lag in wage inflation caused by a focus on reducing unemployment). This will make very little difference to the majority of fares. However, some anomalies will be ironed out, and some regional adjustments will be made. This can cause quite large fluctuations in the price of a few select tickets, almost all of the more expensive open-ended kind, which allow you to travel on various different trains at your choosing. This is normally to iron out the kind of strange kinks in the pricing system which make it possible to, for instance, save plenty of money on a trip from the south-west to the north-west simply by breaking your ticket at Cheltenham Spa, or to encourage more balanced usage of a selection of possible routes after one abnormally cheap or expensive route had dragged traffic towards or away from it and created situations in which some trains are overcrowded and others are empty. As a result of this, a tiny selection of fares will see some odd-looking sharp increases, and another tiny selection will see huge cuts.

The national media will, to a man, cherry-pick a few of these huge increases and rant about them incessantly in order to create something to tell people they corner in railway stations and encourage to moan on live TV. They will then make a ludicrous comparison of a few of the most pricey (per mile) tickets in the UK (choosing the most expensive tickets – the ones that allow you to take any train to or from your destination within a month, take any route, and break your journey as many times as you like along the way for as long as you like) with a few of the cheapest from the continent (choosing, of course, the cheapest tickets possible) in order to get another bunch of hapless citizens to gripe on live TV. Eventually they’ll get bored and go back to pretending the climate change “debate” wasn’t settled in 1995, and generally just making sure democracy has no chance of functioning effectively.

The fact that it’s all sloshing about in the media, with the general tone being that our railways are terrible and overpriced (of which they are neither, but more on that later), tends to mean that a few basic ideas for fixing this get churned around the Internet and generate some discussion. They all tend to follow one or two boilerplate outlines, and generate exactly the same responses and counter-arguments. This blog post will not be one of those arguments. I don’t have some magic plan to revolutionise rail travel in the UK. I have been seduced by most of the proposed solutions at some time or another, but have found them all to be severely lacking on further analysis. This blog post is not intended to give you, the reader, just one more argument for why we should do this or that in order to magically make rail journeys super-fast, super-cheap, always on-time, and equipped with all the creature comforts of a 1930s privately chartered airboat flight. This blog post is intended to set out and analyse the major propositions on offer, to correct some common misconceptions, and to put across the idea that this issue is a whole lot more complicated and difficult than any of the easy options on offer for making everything awesome would lead you to believe.

Firstly, three issues of fact:

One – Our Physical Railways are Nationalised

Those arguing for nationalisation sometimes tend to conflate privatisation of the operation of the railways with privatisation of the railways themselves. The physical, flesh-and-blood (well, wood-and-steel) substance of our railway network is entirely nationally owned, and so it should be. Actually private railways have been tried in the past. You generally get two competing companies building railways parallel to each other for thousands of miles, racing to a choke point that will fit only one line. When one of them breaches the choke point first, the other one simply gives up, with thousands of miles of track left wasted. This genuinely happened in the US. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the farce that would ensue if anyone were ever to privatise the physical railway infrastructure of the UK. Nobody is advocating for this. Perhaps there is someone out there, wearing an Ayn Rand t-shirt, tripping his balls off on powder cocaine, whilst frantically trying to convince his pet cat that everything was much better in the days of competing railroad tycoons, but nobody is taking him seriously. I’ve come across many an argument for the merits of the nationalisation of the operation of our rail network that focuses most of its energy on arguing the merits of national ownership of the network infrastructure itself. This is an argument that nobody is having. There’s simply nobody on the other side that isn’t stoned or masturbating to Atlas Shrugged.

Two – There is Very Little Actual Competition

Whilst the infrastructure is nationally owned, the operation of our railways is, to some extent, a private enterprise. It is, however, a private enterprise of very limited scope. The government comes up with lists of routes that need running, and groups them together into franchises. TOCs (Train Operating Companies) then bid on the right to operate these franchises. Any given TOC generally operates a number of franchises, normally in the same general area. Routes overlap a whole lot, so, very often, multiple TOCs are running trains on the same line. For instance, if I want to catch a train from Liskeard to Exeter, I might catch a CrossCountry service running on the Penzance to Aberdeen route (or some subdivision thereof) or a First Great Western service running either of the two Penzance to Paddington routes (or some subdivision thereof). A similar choice exists for my journeys from Reading to Oxford. Other routes offer no choice whatsoever. Travelling between Wrexham and Newport, for instance, is possible only on Arriva Trains Wales. This is very unlike the “free market” as we’re used to understanding it. For a large number of available “products” there is only one “provider” at any one time. For those journeys for which you have a choice of TOCs, then 99 times out of 100 you will just choose the train that is running at the time you want to travel. There are very few situations in which anyone would choose to travel at a different time of day, just so they could travel with their preferred train operator. Competition and choice, generally the hallmark of a free market, are almost completely absent.

What about cost? When booking well in advance, one might well have the chance to select from a variety of possible travel times, and therefore TOCs would have an incentive to offer the journeys at a competitive price in order to attract these customers. There are a few easy ways to compare prices of advance tickets these days, and I normally am willing to travel at slightly inconvenient times of day if I can make significant savings. So maybe, for journeys with multiple options for TOC, for people booking their journeys in advance with flexible travel times, there is competition. But, even then, there’s less than you might think. Here’s a good description of how rail fares are set, which I’m going to just quote rather than paraphrase:

Every origin-destination pair (known as a ‘flow’) is allocated to a particular train operator who has the right and the obligation to set the fares.  This operator is known as the ‘Lead Operator’ for that flow.  Once the Lead Operator has set the fares, every other operator serving any part of that flow (known as the ‘Secondary Operators’) are legally obliged to accept those fares for travel on their trains.  As I’ve said, Advance fares are by definition only valid on one train operator’s trains, and both Lead Operators and Secondary Operators are allowed to set Advance fares for their own trains.  In addition Secondary Operators are allowed to set other (more flexible) fare types for their own trains, although only a few choose to do so.  For example, you’ll see ‘anytime’ & ‘off-peak’ fares from London to Hull routed ‘Hull Trains only’ set by Secondary Operator Hull Trains, in addition to the main London to Hull ‘route any permitted’ anytime & off-peak fares set by Lead Operator National Express East Coast.  However, Lead Operators are not permitted to set fares which are only valid on their own trains, other than Advance fares, temporary fares & first class fares.  Revenue from the fares set by Lead Operators is shared between all operators serving that route, based on a computer system called ORCATS which models the proportion of passenger miles travelled on each operator.

So, price competition is limited to advance fares (which does not just mean fares purchased in advance, it means the specific, cheaper tickets which are only valid on one train) and to certain secondary operators. This is not competition in the sense we normally understand or expect it.

So, where is the competition on our railways? Where is the incentive for TOCs to provide better service? Where is that lynchpin of the whole idea of privatisation? It’s actually somewhere else, at the bidding phase. The passengers are not the discerning customers whose opinions on the product they are being offered will affect the success of that company. That only applies in competition between rail and other forms of transport. Apart from in very limited cases, no TOC has to fear that shoddy service will mean that cash from passengers flows to a different, better-performing TOC instead. The customer that matters is the government. If the government feels that a TOC is not up-to-scratch, then it will not be so happy to award franchises to that TOC. This is where TOCs have to compete on prices and service. The government will pick the TOC for any given franchise whose bid provides them with the best return on their investment (or smallest loss – if the franchise isn’t profitable – more o this later), whilst also taking into account considerations such as the service that will be provided. This means that customer satisfaction does, fairly indirectly, matter. The government is going to view the bids of a TOC that habitually offers poorer service less favourably. But this is a very indirect effect, and only operates on the broadest-brush level. It’s not real competition in the traditional sense.

So, our railways are not really privatised in the classic sense. The physical railways themselves are fully nationalised, as they should be, and even the parts that are privatised are done in a way that does not resemble a free market in the classic sense.

Three – Our Railway System is the Envy of Europe

We have this ludicrous idea that our railways are somehow awful. That they’re slow, always late, badly maintained, overpriced, and generally a disgrace. This seems to be something of a combination of hangover from the 80s and early 90s, when our network really was a complete shambles, and run-of-the-mill British people being down on ourselves.

It’s not the best in the world. We aren’t Japan. But then nowhere else is. What we tend to do is unfavourably compare our network with those in Europe. It’s easy to see why this starts. When you’re creaking along an old branch-line in the Welsh Valleys in some 1970s 3-car DMU, it’s easy to think about the brand-new, lightning-fast TGVs in France or ICE trains in Germany, and bemoan our creaking network. But this is completely erroneous in four key regards.

Firstly – it’s not comparing like with like

The TGV and the ICE train are the ultimate long-distance services, not rural commuter trains. If we want to compare like with like, we must compare our Intercity 225 and Virgin Pendolino trains with the TGV and ICE trains, and compare our rural and commuter networks with their equivalents in Europe. Once we do this, we immediately start to look in better shape. Rural train services are pretty terrible all over Europe. They’re slow and rickety and not much effort tends to go into making them a pleasant experience for the traveller. This is normal. Go on rural trains in France or Germany, or especially Italy and Spain, and suddenly our rural trains don’t look so bad.

Secondly – we have totally different geography

If we are comparing like with like on the long-distance front, people do tend to moan that our trains aren’t as fast as those on the continent. No, our trains don’t do 180mph (bar HS1 in Kent). Our signalling system limits our trains to 125mph, though both the rails and the trains are suitable for much faster speeds in some places (Pendolinos can do 140mph and 225s can break 160mph) if we just upgraded our signalling system, which is something the unions have been blocking for decades. What’s a union for if not to save a few hundred outdated jobs in an inefficient system and thus hold back the economic development of the entire North of England, though? But this isn’t actually all that bad. France and Germany both have plentiful areas of flatland, through which dead straight and level lines can be run at low cost. Our country is full of hills, mountain ranges, jagged coastlines, and major centres of population crammed close together. It’s just not cut out for high-speed rail to anything like the extent that France and Germany are. And it’s not like our services are hanging about. You can get from London to York in just under 2 hours. We could cut that down a bit if our country were geographically suitable for plenty of high-speed lines, but it isn’t.

Thirdly – they’re not overpriced

That 2h London-York journey I talked about. I just tried to buy one and it’s £13.60. That’s without my 16-25 railcard discount. I could take that train for £9. See, you can cherry-pick statistics to make almost any case. I lob that up on a flashy infographic comparing it, and a few other similar bargains, with a few journeys of a similar length between continental cities and I could make the case that our railways are by far the cheapest in the world. You have to book your train a little in advance, but that makes sense. Advance booking allows the TOCs to run much more efficiently, and offering tickets for specific trains at a much lower price than tickets that allow you to jump on a variety of trains at your leisure is also perfectly reasonable. It means that the more expensive fares, that allow huge flexibility, are more expensive than their European counterpart, but it then means that the less flexible tickets are miles, miles cheaper. It’s such a good idea that most European networks are planning to implement it themselves. When we moan about the price of our rail journeys, we almost exclusively compare on the least favourable grounds, comparing the type of journeys for which we charge more than our European counterparts, and not mentioning the plentiful supply of journeys for which we beat their pricing into a cocked hat. If we actually look at the full picture, we’re really not that expensive when placed next to other good railway networks in the world, and they are generally much more subsidised by the taxpayer than ours is.

Fourthly – our networks are significantly more efficient than our European counterparts

This is the most important point. Go on a rail journey in Europe and you will see that trains often wait up to five minutes at each station. This is to allow them to make up the time they’re expected to have lost at each juncture. Their networks are incredibly lax, and their timetabling builds in a huge amount of leeway, with trains being scheduled to be significantly slower than they actually could be. This is a sensible way to run a network that isn’t that taxed for traffic. On the other hand, our network runs at an extremely high capacity. Our trains roll into stations and roll out again within the minute. Very little time is set aside to make up for any losses, so it does take quite a while to catch up if the trains get behind schedule. But that is purely because the schedules are ludicrously tight. This means that we can carry much more traffic. It’s much more efficient. But it will, obviously, mean that delays happen more. Not because the trains are more likely to get held up, but simply because we don’t have the same kind of leeway for them to make up time. On the continent, the train will be scheduled to make each leg of the journey about 5 minutes slower than it can actually do, and if it doesn’t get held up, it just waits at the next station for a while. While we put much, much tighter restrictions on the running of our trains, so that even small hold-ups are counted as “delays”, we still manage a punctuality rate that is similar to or better than our European counterparts. If we ran our trains in the laxer, lower-capacity set-up that they do, they’d almost never be late! But then we wouldn’t have the carrying capacity. Running at the capacity they do, our network is one of the most efficient in the entire world.

Despite all this, everyone moans. Everyone wants the railways to be better, and half of society seems convinced that the fundamental fault lies in the way our system is organised. This strange franchising system, which we have used since 1997, they blame for all the perceived ills of our system. Just use a different system, they claim, and everything will be better. They come up with two proposed solutions, which I will detail below.

Position One – Renationalise the Railways

The argument for full nationalisation is very simple, and initially very compelling. There is one TOC on our system that is actually owned by the government. This is East Coast. East Coast run Class 91 225s from King’s X up the ECML to Edinburgh, and Class 43 125s up to Perth and Aberdeen (plus subdivisions). They are one of the most profitable, punctual, and satisfactory TOCs on the network. I recently travelled on an East Coast Class 43 125 from King’s X to Aberdeen, and it was a joy. The single argument for nationalisation that I have heard is simply “Look at East Coast – why on earth wouldn’t we do it all like that?”

This is a superficially persuasive argument, but it is actually absolute rot, and I will explain why after I’ve laid out the other major plan to revitalise our rail system.

Position Two – Completely Privatise the Railways

There are two main arguments for going the other way – for properly privatising our railways. Not, obviously, in the manner of privatising the network itself, but for demolishing the franchising system and just letting TOCs set up and go it alone, applying for individual timetabling slots and setting their own prices as they see fit.

Argument One – Grand Central

There is already one operator on our network that follows this model. Grand Central runs class 180 Adelantes from King’s X to Doncaster, where some then go to Sunderland and some to Bradford. These weren’t franchised routes. Grand Central just rocked up and decided there was a demand for them, so they got some trains, got some timetable slots, and had a ball, totally outside the franchise bidding and fare setting restrictions. And it’s been a roaring success. They’re as lauded and loved as East Coast. There used to be another of these “Open Access Operators”, Wrexham and Shropshire Railway. They ran Class 43 125s from Marylebone to Wrexham. They offered such a good service that, on more than one occasion, I was advised to more than double my journey time from Chester to London by taking a train to Wrexham and using this service, rather than take a direct fast train to Euston. They sadly folded when Virgin Trains started running a Euston to Wrexham service that took less than half the time. There’s no level of great service that will compete with that. The argument for making everything Open Access is simply “Look at Grand Central – why on earth wouldn’t we do it all like that?”

You may be beginning to smell a rat, here. This is an identical argument to that made for nationalisation. One of the surest ways to tell that an argument is logically flawed is to notice that it can give contradictory conclusions from equally correct data. I’ll explain what the problem with this argument actually is after I have covered the other argument for further privatisation.

Argument Two – History

The other argument for privatisation comes from simply studying the history of our network. Once we got out of the ludicrous situation in which we had different track gauges in different parts of the country, and got a proper national rail network, we went through a period of pretty much the same kind of privatisation that is favoured by those trumpeting the Open Access model. A plethora of railway companies competed with each other pretty openly. Over time, as will always happen, the companies ate each other up and the period of the “Big Four” (basically regional monopolies) came about, and then in 1948 British Railways was born, and the whole shooting match was totally nationalised. This persisted, first in a system of regions and then under a system of sectors (more on this later) until the current franchised system was born in 1996. I think there were actually fireworks.

The argument is very simple. In the age of Open Access style privatisation, our railways were the envy of the world and the pride of our nation. After nearly 50 years of national ownership, they were a shambolic joke. Now they’re so-so. So let’s stick with what worked, and go back to how it was done in the glory days, without any of this half-arsed semi-privatisation.

Each of these arguments (as long as you don’t hear the East Coast and Grand Central arguments in quick succession) is superficially persuasive, but they are both miserably flawed, and I will explain why by introducing two key ideas.

One – Performance Comparisons between different TOCs are meaningless

This applies whether we are talking about punctuality, profitability, or customer satisfaction. Take First Great Western as an example. They’re plagued with delays, operate nine of the ten most hated journeys in the country (all between Reading and Paddington), and suffer chronic overcrowding. But there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. They operate over the Paddington to Reading line. The vast majority of their long-distance services and a huge chunk of their local services run through this section of track. It’s only four tracks wide, when it really should be six, and was only very recently even electrified. It’s a colossal bottleneck, and dealing with it ruins the entirety of the First Great Western service. It’s not the TOC’s fault that its arterial line has suffered from chronic under-investment. All that sort of thing is down to the nationalised, nuts-and-bolts bit of the train network that I mentioned earlier. No TOC could get good service out of the Reading to Paddington line. Once this is taken into account with various mathematical models and the like, FGW is actually one of the best-performing TOCs on our network, and as a result, the government is happy to keep awarding it franchises even though it’s one of the most hated operators going. And that’s absolutely how it should be. That’s a better deal than some kind of fully private system, under which the Reading to Paddington line would be some kind of poisoned chalice passed around between different companies, drawing falling profits and plunging reputations wherever it went. FGW is not a bad TOC because of its poor punctuality and customer satisfaction. All of that is simply down to it operating a nasty bit of track.

Let’s look at this in relation to East Coast and Grand Central. Most TOCs operate a mixture of long-distance, rural, and metropolitan services. But there are a couple that operate purely long-distance services. Virgin Trains, First Hull Trains, Grand Central, and East Coast (CrossCountry operate only long-distance services too, but they are a very different case because they don’t stick to main lines, they dog-leg between main lines using smaller lines in order to offer the tricky routes like Penzance to Aberdeen and Southampton to Manchester that are not at all catered for by our spider’s web network). These are the most profitable, punctual, and satisfactory of our TOCs. It’s purely because they’re only operating on the best lines our network has to offer. Virgin Trains suffers a little from the under-capacity of the WCML, but the other three run up the ECML, the best line in the country. And all they do is run the kind of long-distance services that are just so much more profitable than metropolitan or rural services, and thus they can afford to provide the most satisfactory travelling conditions on our network. Grand Central and East Coast aren’t awesome TOCs because they’re buoyed by the wonders of privatisation or of nationalisation, respectively, but because they’re running the easiest and most profitable train journeys our network provides. Take the same models and get them running a primarily rural service like that offered by Northern Rail or Arriva Trains Wales, and you would see a very different story.

Neither the argument for nationalisation nor for privatisation from looking at the single TOC that runs under these conditions holds up to scrutiny. It’s all just an artefact of the superb nature of the ECML.

But the argument for privatisation from history still remains, so it’s time to expand upon something I’ve touched upon in this last section.

Two – Rural Rail Travel is Not Profitable

Just as FGW will be held to lower standards than Virgin Trains when under government assessment of performance due to the horrific Paddington-Reading bottleneck about which it can do nothing, TOCs that have a greater focus on rural services will also be held to a lower standard, particularly in terms of the financial return they are expected to provide. The huge profitability bonus of long-distance operations isn’t confined to the ECML. Any TOC that has a greater focus on long-distance travel will be more profitable, and thus will be expected to make a greater return. Long-distance rail travel is hugely lucrative. East Coast is making big profits even though, as I mentioned earlier, they can get me from London to York for £9. The system just works out that way. Metropolitan rail is also pretty big money because you can get away with much higher ticket prices due to the strong commuter demand. Rail fares around London are certainly the type of fares you pick if you want to make our system look overpriced. But rural rail is just a financial disaster. It’s amongst the most important parts of our network – providing the benefits of public transport to some of the most deprived areas of our nation – but you can’t make a dime off it. It’s a public service and can’t be anything else. Back in the golden age of rail transport, things were different. Coal was pouring out of Wales and the North, and the great age of steam was an environment in which you could make a killing by running pretty much any rail system. But by the time of nationalisation, things were very different. In 1966, a large portion of the rural lines were shut simply because they weren’t profitable. Thankfully that awful approach did not continue into the 70s and beyond, or we’d have none at all. When BR was shifted from a region-based system into a sectorisation approach, the network was split in three. Inter-City ran long-distance services (I am just old enough to remember the gorgeous Swallow Livery (pictured) from the last years of this system – excuse me whilst I organise my anoraks and trim my neckbeard); Regional Railways handled the rural side, and Network South East dealt with the metropolitan area of London and the South-East. It was always understood that Regional Railways would always be a huge loss-maker. It had to be supported by profits from the other two.

This is essentially still the case now. When awarding franchises, the government really doesn’t expect anything useful to come of rural and branch-line services, so entertains pretty meagre bids. Gains made from the returns generated from the TOCs operating the more lucrative services help to even this out. No Open Access Operator would set foot on a rural or branch line service. They’d run screaming at the thought. You might be able to make a killing even without any government subsidy by running a few key routes up the ECML that had been overlooked by the franchising system, but attempting to make a profitable business out of something like the Welsh Valley lines would be pure madness.

This is why the Open Access model proposed by the champions of privatisation could never work nationwide. Whether they be pointing excitedly at Grand Central or dreaming of the golden age of railways, no champion of privatisation can overcome this fundamental economic reality. Without the semi-nationalisation provided by franchising, without the ability to funnel money from the lucrative lines to the public service lines, our network would be a shell of what it is today. We’d have the key main-lines from London: The ECML, WCML, MML, and GWML, plus their major branches. We’d probably keep South Coast Line, plus the Brighton-Victoria line. Liverpool Street to King’s Lynn might survive, and the links from Penzance up to Birmingham and across to the ECML would stay. But you could wave goodbye to the rest of the network. Any rail links in Scotland bar Glasgow, Perth, Aberdeen and Edinburgh? Forget it. Anything in Wales bar Chester-Holyhead and Bristol-Swansea? Jog on. We would have a hugely lucrative high-speed service offering comfortable, cheap travel between a small handful of major cities, and the rest of us could whistle. Our rail network would not survive the dismantling of the franchising model and a switch to Open Access.

So what can be done?

It should be clear to anyone that, despite the success of Grand Central and the glory days of privatisation in the golden age of rail, that further privatisation, far from improving our railways, would rip them to shreds. But what of nationalisation. The only decent case for it is the fallacious East Coast argument, but does it have the same kind of fatal flaws as privatisation does?

To some extent, yes. The only decent part of the argument for privatisation from history is the part that warns against full nationalisation, rather than for full privatisation. This is the brute fact that, when nationalised, our railways were an absolute laughing stock. Those who complain about our railways today would do well to take a trip back to 1994. Unlike any attempts to argue for privatisation by making parallels with the golden age of steam railways, arguments from history against re-nationalisation are not hampered by any problems with comparing across vastly different economic situations. The failure of nationalisation occurred in an age in which the economics of rail travel were much as they are today (lucrative long-distance and metropolitan services keeping afloat loss-making rural services).

I pointed out earlier how the oft-quoted benefits of privatisation, i.e. incentive through competition for improved services, apply only on a broad-brush level in our franchised system. But they don’t apply at all in a fully nationalised system. And this was, it seems, the problem. Even though it’s the competition for government franchises, rather than for satisfied customers, that drives TOCs to deliver better service, there is at least an incentive. Due to the problems inherent with comparing TOCs, this is probably a more measured and sensible form of incentive than that of a fully private system, in fact.

There’s also the economic benefit. Franchised rail has turned out a little pricier on passengers than nationalised rail, but the service offered in inarguably better by orders of magnitude. This has a great impact on the national finances, as nationalised rail had become something of a monetary black-hole. Never has investment in improving the rail infrastructure been higher, now the government is free to focus its direct financial assistance on the physical network, without the rail budget being sucked dry by the mess that was British Rail. The cost to passengers, too, can be kept down by halting the planned fares escalator that slowly pushes cost away from the taxpayer and onto the passenger. This is what has been done, in the main, by the current government. Certainly, in such strained economic times, it would be worth not stretching the pocket of the commuter too much.

In conclusion, the case for privatisation or nationalisation based on the individual TOCs, Grand Central and East Coast, does not stand up to the slightest of scrutiny. The argument for privatisation based on nostalgia about the golden age of steam is also utterly without merit. The argument against privatisation from a simple assessment of the profitability of rail both under BR Sectorisation and the current Franchised system is water-tight. The case against re-nationalisation from historical precedent does seem to stand up to some scrutiny.

I would argue, therefore, that privatising our rail network further would be an utter and complete disaster, and that re-nationalising it would probably be utterly shambolic, though not to anything like the same degree. The current franchising model provides competition benefits to an even greater degree than full privatisation, whilst still maintaining the key benefits of nationalisation, those of maintaining rural rail despite its economic unfeasibility. It would be wise, I think, to halt the fare escalator for a while longer, and maybe review how far it goes in the long run, as the spectre of 1966 would start to loom large if the financial burden were pushed much farther onto passengers and off the government. Maybe it is time to start considering varied escalators, with long-distance journeys worked on a slightly more “passenger pays” model, helping to free up government rail funds for further infrastructure investment and for keeping the subsidy of rural rail high.

One thing of which I am sure, however, is that full-scale re-nationalisation or privatisation of our rail network would be a huge mistake. Franchising, for all its oddities, really is the best of both worlds.

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