Opinion
30 Oct 2017 01:42pm

Debate: renationalising railways

We asked a number of experts, professors, business groups and firms if renationalising the railways will lead to a better deal for the customer

ALEX NIEL MSP, member of the Scottish National Party

“Unlike the old nationalised industries, Scottish Water is firmly supervised by an independent regulator, which sets its parameters, key objectives and such like. If the railway was run along similar lines I believe it could be successful.”

CHRIS GRAYLING, secretary of state for transport, giving a speech at the Transport Times UK Rail Summit in September

“Nationalisation under Clement Attlee’s Labour government was an attempt to stabilise the ‘big four’ rail operators, each of which was effectively bankrupt. The Beeching cuts were a radical response to a decade of falling passenger numbers and rising losses. And privatisation was intended to halt the further slide of the railway – which had seen usage fall by almost a third between 1960 and 1995.

“Of all these different reforms, it’s that last one – privatisation – that stands out. Because it’s the only one that worked. It didn’t just stabilise passenger numbers. It transformed them.”

CHARLOTTE LYDIA RILEY, lecturer in 20th century British history at the University of Southampton

“I support rail nationalisation purely to hurt Richard Branson. I don’t care how much it costs.Virgin Trains are the most obvious evidence against the idea that the market leads to better consumer choice and service.”

MANUEL CORTES, TSSA general secretary

“It’s time we stopped this annual rip-off of our passengers. Money made from the railways should
be ploughed back into cheaper fares and service upgrades.”


CHRISTIAN WOLMAR, author of On the Wrong Line and Railways and the Raj

“Bringing the franchises back in house would be a sensible idea that would save money and alleviate the damaging effects of the fragmentation of the railways caused by its break up and sale. However, this is not a panacea.

“The problems created by the destruction of British Rail, resulting in loss of skills and collective memory, require the creation of an organisation to oversee the running of the country’s rail network. It would incorporate Network Rail and develop the kind of expertise that allowed BR to be successful in its later period.

“The new organisation would develop and implement a long-term strategy for the railway, something that does not exist today. Ultimately it would be in control of operations and infrastructure (integration of both is key to bringing down costs), but this will take time as some franchises stretch into the mid 2020s.”

Reaction to research by the Action for Rail campaign in January that found UK commuters spend up to six times as much of their salary on rail fares as passengers in other European countries:
Tony Murphy, Unite national officer for the rail industry

“Yet again UK rail passengers are hammered by the annual fares rip-off. Transport secretary Chris Grayling has made it clear that he views the railways as a political football for ideologues”

OLIVER LEWIS, Campaign to Bring Back British Rail


“Completing nationalisation by ending rail franchising will not be a panacea for the railways’ problems, but it will be a start. Reintegrating the railway – not to go ‘back to British Rail’ but forward to a state-owned rail operator such as France’s SNCF – will reduce transaction costs between legal entities in what is a natural monopoly.

“Whatever the structure for the future nationalised railway, be in no doubt: public opinion wills it overwhelmingly, and this includes a majority of Conservative voters according to polling. It may take time, but as with Brexit public opinion will win in the end because politicians are ultimately accountable to the court of public opinion.

“I am confident that within the next two decades, Britain’s expensive experiment with rail privatisation will come to an end.”

FRANCES O’GRADY, TUC general secretary

“It’s time for rail services to be publicly owned, saving money for passengers and taxpayers alike. Instead of increasing fares and cutting staff, we should be building an accessible, reliable train service”

PAUL PLUMMER, chief executive, Rail Delivery Group

“Rail contributes more than £10bn a year to the economy and employs up to 240,000 people.
“Our railway has been transformed by a private-public sector partnership into one of the world’s safest and fastest growing, and gone from costing taxpayers £2bn a year 20 years ago to now contributing £800m a year.

“By attracting record numbers of passengers with good-value fares and better services, train companies are generating more money to lessen the bill for taxpayers and support investment. Around 97p in every pound from fares goes back into running and improving the railway. The argument that if we did away with train company profits we would have cheap fares and a cheap bill for the taxpayer just isn’t true.

“The railway is a critical public service delivered in partnership with rail companies who are working together to bring innovation, investment and a focus on customers. Seemingly simple changes do nothing to address the need for investment and improvement in the railway. What customers, communities and the country need is today’s railway working closer together, not a radical overhaul to return us to the past.”

TONY LODGE, research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

“Britain’s railways have enjoyed a renaissance. Not since the 1920s have so many people travelled by train, but this is on a network half the size. Numbers have doubled since privatisation in the early 1990s. They have never been safer and the introduction of the high-speed IEP trains next year will herald a new era of rail travel in Britain. Under the old nationalised British Rail passenger numbers declined gradually over a generation and the regions endured old and poor rolling stock with a failing safety record. Annual equivalent fare rises were far higher than today and the management mentality was one of controlling a slow decline.

“More intercity competition and choice is now the answer – not nationalisation and more Whitehall control. More trains must be allowed to compete for passengers and deliver fare competition and better on-board services. The Conservatives pledged this when they privatised – it’s time to finish the job.”

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