Since privatisation the cost to the public purse of running the railways has risen by a factor of between two and three times. From about £2.4 billion per year before privatisation to around £5.4 billion per year. Over the same period the amount of money that is 'invested' into the railways from passenger fares has also increased in real terms.
Many of these additional costs can be attributed to inherent flaws in the overly complex privatisation structure created by the Conservative government in 1994.
Key to the exponential increase in costs are higher interest payments in order to keep Network Rail's debts off the government's balance sheet, debt write-offs and costs arising from the fragmentation of the network into so many different organisations. Then there are the profit margins of layer upon layer of contractors and sub-contractors to be taken into account, along with dividend payments to shareholders. Added together these represent a cumulative, conservatively estimated cost to the taxpayer of more than £11b of public funds or around £ 1.2b a year. If these wholly unnecessary costs were eliminated and the resultant savings invested in reducing fares, it could deliver an across-the-board fare cut of roughly 18%.
Not only would passengers benefit from any reduction in fares under nationalisation-commuter fares are the highest in Europe- they would also benefit from a much-simplified and easy-to-understand ticketing system, and have a single accountable body to complain to if things go wrong.
We need a single railway which offers passengers a quality service at an affordable price. A rail service which is prepared to invest long-term in order to tackle over-crowding, stimulate regional economic regeneration and integrate with other local services to provide a seamless public transport network.
Privatisation has singularly failed to increase efficiency of the railways. This is largely due to the widespread duplication of functions inherent in such a fragmented franchise system, resulting in a 56% increase in the costs of 'backroom' staff since privatisation.
A step-by-step programme of renationalisation would enable the government to reacquire the railway assets 'we' sold at minimal cost, resulting in huge savings as the process progresses. As franchises expire, or when a Train Operating Company fails to meet the conditions of a franchise agreement, the franchise should be taken back into public ownership. Only then can we guarantee the kind of long-term investment needed. This would also provide a new model for standardising rolling stock procurement, which at the moment is subject to the very varied requirements of different routes, franchises and TOC's. It would also allow a single rail company to procure new trains directly, using either government grants or government backed debt.
Perhaps most significantly we need an over-arching strategy for the railway that would benefit all rail users as well as the public purse, and can only come from a re-nationalised single railway entity belonging to and accountable to the government, with responsibility for all passenger train operations, as well as the railway infrastructure; Maintenance and enhancement, signalling and station management.
The privatised railway has proved very profitable for some, including many banks and train operators, however companies which were happy to fleece the railway during boom years walked away from their franchises when things went bad, a clear case of profiteering at the public expense, and a system we should rid ourselves of at the earliest opportunity.
There is overwhelming public support for re-nationalising our railway. Support that can only increase once the true costs of privatisation are made clear.