I think I speak for all metropolitan liberal elites when I say how much I enjoy sitting on the train, slurping my soy flat white, browsing my Evening Standard and holding my phone horizontally whilst I talk to someone via my headphones. Of course, that past-time may become slightly more cumbersome as, over the past week, Britain’s sky-high rail prices were bumped up another ratchet.
Naturally, in the wake of this news, social media was once again awash with chatter of renationalising the railways, but that’s a stupid idea – and here’s why;
It’s an accepted truth that trains in the UK are pretty crap. Often, you pay through the nose for a service that is either late, overcrowded or both. What is also an accepted truth, though fogged by collective amnesia, is that Britain’s past dabbling with nationalised railways under British Rail was even crapper.
Of course, there is a case for saying that nationalisation would alleviate some of the direct financial burden of train travel, you only have to look at rail services across Europe to see that, but that doesn’t mean it would provide a better service. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that the increase in tax subsidy would lessen the overall cost from what it is now, it would still not be an improvement of service.
You only have to look at Italy’s Trenitalia to know how cushy the services are here compared, unless of course, you enjoy damp, battered carriages with door hinges likely to lacerate you. Simply put, we’ll never get high quality state-provided services unless you’re prepared to be taxed to the high heavens for the pleasure.
Of course, anecdotal evidence is rarely valid, but there is also a whole heap of statistical evidence that also illustrates renationalisation isn’t the way to go. For a start, it’s not even true that our railways are fully privatised. Since 2002, the tracks and infrastructure are owned by public company Network Rail – and guess who is responsible, by their own admission, for at least 60% of all train delays – the publicly owned Network Rail.
In fact, this weird hybrid model of public and private ownership has proven consistently inefficient. National Rail’s poor management has caused fees for running the railways to bloat by 30%, and the national debt to increase by £34bn. But such is the wasteful fragmentation of this service, the private companies have to pay a £3.1bn access charge to the National Rail on top of their franchising costs.
And given that coasts of running the railways have gone up by 30% and the real term rise of train travel since privatisation is 24%, so in a rather vile twist, the commuter is actually paying less than they should, though I use that particular phrasing loosely.
Of course, the real issue with our trains is the process of franchising and their tendencies to inflict privatised monopolies that eliminate competition and thus any incentive for private operators to a) provide a better service or b) make their pricing competitive. I live between two stations; Leicester and Rugby. From Rugby, where Virgin and West Midlands Trains compete for punters, it can cost me as little as £9 to get to London, but if I go from Leicester, where only East Midlands Trains operate, it costs me around £40. Again, this is anecdotal but the point remains.
So, given that the government heavily subsidises travel, has inflated the cost of running the trains and prices still climb higher, there is next to no argument for further public control of rail travel will result in better pricing and higher quality service – really, we need to go the other way to get value for money on trains.