We Own It, which campaigns for public ownership of key services, called the decision a “victory”. Image: Ray Forster
Train operator TransPennine Express is to effectively be run by the government after “months of… continuous cancellations” as service levels went from bad to worse.
The train operator, which connects Manchester and Liverpool in the north of England and runs to Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, will be run by the operator of last resort (OLR), a company that takes ownership of railway franchises on behalf of the government.
Set up as a safety net for failed train companies in 2018 when Virgin Trains was stripped of the franchise, TransPennine is at least the eighth train operator to be taken over by the OLR.
With private companies struggling to manage fluctuating passenger levels and staffing, it begs the question: is full nationalisation on the horizon?
Under the operator of last resort, TransPennine services will run as normal with no changes to tickets, timetables or planned service, the government confirmed in a statement. In January and February around a quarter of TransPennine services were cancelled, the highest rate of any UK operator.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said that for months commuters and businesses bore the brunt of continuous cancellations. He claimed that the train provider faced challenges including industrial action from train drivers union Aslef which prevented “Transpennine Express from being able to run a full service”.
Aslef has been engaged in a dispute over pay, staffing levels and safety with the government since June last year, causing destruction to services run by all operators across the country.
We Own It, which campaigns for public ownership of key services, called the decision a “victory”.
“Today’s decision is yet more evidence that rail privatisation is a failed experiment. It’s time to get our railways back on track and bring them into public hands,” said a spokesperson on Twitter.
But it’s not just TransPennine that has left passengers stranded on platforms and forced to pay for train tickets pricier than a return flight to Europe.
The government faced a slew of criticism last year for renewing the contract of train operator Avanti West Coast for its decision to “reward failure” by renewing the train operator’s contract despite running a skeleton service causing chaos for thousands of people.
Anger at the rail companies for high prices and poor service is part of the British way of life.
“Rail fares have gone up by twice the rate of inflation since privatisation”, We Own It’s lead campaigner Johnbosco Nwogbo told The Big Issue last year. With train tickets between Manchester and London running into the hundreds of pounds, such prices are simply “encouraging people to go back to using their cars” rather than investing in green alternatives to fight the climate emergency.
Campaigners, such as We Own It, argue that under state ownership, rail fares could be more tightly controlled and average fares lowered to make rail travel an affordable, climate-friendly alternative to car travel.
But although we talk about the railways being privatised, really they’re a state of “pretend capitalism” says Christian Wolmar, author of British Rail: A New History.
The picture is further complicated by the different levels of ownership for the different parts of the rail system.
There are the companies that own the trains themselves, other companies that lease those trains and are in charge of running them on the tracks, with the actual 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges and other infrastructure owned by Network Rail.
By linking up all these different parts under an integrated rail system, “you would be able to offer a more efficient, cheaper and better service,” says Wolmar.
“Nationalisation would enable the state to create an integrated railway,” Wolmar argues, “where one manager would be responsible for all aspects of running the service.”
That is what former transport secretary Grant Shapps had proposed to do with the new, publicly-owned Great British Railways to oversee infrastructure, ticket prices and timetables.
But, he insists, this does not mean nationalisation, and there is a misplaced nostalgia for the nationalised British Rail.
“Let’s not forget, passenger numbers plummeted year on year on year. They closed down thousands of miles of track,” he told the FT in 2021. “Stations closed and communities got cut off and they served diabolically bad sandwiches. That was actually what happened.”
Passenger journeys are up and so is freight, according to privatisation’s proponents, but it’s hard to deduce what successes privatisation of the railways directly achieved and what can be put down to population growth.
You “can’t say it’s all coincidence” that passenger numbers have shot up since privatisation, independent rail planning consultant William Barter told The Big Issue in August last year.
But “the operators have paid much more attention to standards of service and introduced online sales and suchlike,” he says, all of which have benefited travellers. “We should not lose that potential for innovation.”
And anyway, it’s important to ask what we even mean when we talk about renationalising.
“I think ‘renationalising’ is a completely sterile argument,” claimed Barter, “as the railways are already for all practical purposes nationalised.”
“Network Rail, the infrastructure owner, is a public sector company,” he said.”The operating contracts to run train services are let by the Department for Transport [or Transport for London, or devolved governments], and very tightly controlled as to levels of service and fares.”
And this is before the government’s proposed solution, Great British Railways, comes in next year.
“Great British Railways, if the government ever gets round to legislating for it, would be reform of the system in that it would be a single body with responsibility for all functions – infrastructure, fares, timetables etc – but could and probably would still contract out operation of the services that it specifies,” Barter said.
This is not too dissimilar to other so-called nationalised industries. Even the NHS works on the basis of contracting delivery out to private companies. So it seems that nationalisation and privatisation are not as black and white as it may seem. There is a sliding scale.
For Barter, then, “the key issue to consider is the extent to which the current companies involved take risk and keep profit.”
In other words, it’s a balancing act. Tip too far one way and private companies will fill the bank accounts of their shareholders and directors to the detriment of the taxpayer and their customers, safe in the knowledge that rail is a natural monopoly overseen by toothless regulators.
Go too far the other way, and nationalised industries can be an inefficient, uncompetitive millstone around the neck of government, loading the country with debt without delivering the improvements the population sorely needs.
What’s certain is that Britain’s current ineffective railway network is hurting the UK economy, at a time when it needs all the help it can get.
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