Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Our National Railways

Some prospective Labour parliamentary candidates have written to the Observer calling for the Railways to be re-nationalised:

Just as Labour has pledged to freeze energy bills and reset the market to secure a better deal for customers, so it will be necessary to reform the rail industry to secure a better deal for passengers.
The Observer, Saturday 3 May 2014: Letters (3rd letter down)

I think they are advocating the right policy, but clouding the issue by making the major reason securing “a better deal for passengers”.Train travel is now a minority pursuit and many of those who commute by rail do so because they have no real alternative option – yet it is massively subsidised by those of us who do not travel by rail. Much of that subsidy also goes to supporting travel in London and the South East – yet is subsidised by taxpayers from Truro to Lerwick.

The rail industry should be reformed in the interests of the country – like other monopoly national networks it is a utility that should benefit the entire nation. Free Enterprise does not have a good record when applied to the railways.

We have seen the disastrous impact of privatising Railtrack where arguably profit came before safety:

… privatising an industry that continues to need large subsidies leads to problems; the form of privatisation chosen involved a mass of complicated and antagonistic relationships between Railtrack and its customers and the regulator; and no account appeared to have been taken of the poor state of the railway. Poor management and inadequate direction did not help; nor did the three major fatal rail accidents that occurred on its watch – all attributed to factors under the company’s overall control.
House of Commons Library: Railways: Railtrack, 1994-2002

We have seen the difficulties faced by Train Operating Companies – particularly on the East Coast Mainline where we have seen GNER and National Express have “difficulties” in running the franchise. Currently it is run (at arm’s length) by the Government owned Directly Operated Railways – until the franchise can be returned to the private sector (after which Wikipedia may provide a more lasting link than the one above).

Wishing to nationalise “for the benefit of hard-pressed commuters”, smells a bit of special pleading on behalf of potential swing voters in marginal constituencies. Many commuters are travelling excessive distances and hence incurring huge fares; the answer to “fares taking a massive portion of people’s pay” has to be a bolder policy to reduce the need to travel such excessive distances – particularly in the South East.

Regional disparities in this country and the dominance of the Greater South East (in terms of both government policy and the attitude of many people living in the South East) is literally tearing this country apart. Further subsidising rare fares into the sink hole that is London will only make the situation worse.

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2 thoughts on “Our National Railways

  1. Peter on said:

    I would like to think that commuters will continue to pay as high prices, if not higher than they do now. Giving any ‘benefits’ to commuters will only end up yet again removing the balance when somebody has to make a decision as to whether it is beneficial to commute long distances or not. They chose to commute in many cases.

    However there is a great need to make the railways more accessible as a tool for leisure. At the moment the rail companies are obsessed with trying to persuade even more people to travel to the South East by proving even more frequent services and discounting fares. When it can cheaper to travel from Wigan to London than Wigan to Leeds, there has to be something wrong, especially as the latter journey also takes a longer time.

    At least nationalisation should remove some of the sillies, where a journey can cost a quarter of the original fare simply by buying two tickets to an intermediate station.

    However the purpose of the railways should be moving away from the seemingly sole purpose of getting people to London for spurious business needs, and focusing more on leisure use.

  2. Pingback: Rail Fares Freeze – whose promise? | Outside the marginals

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