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  • Writer's pictureHersh Thaker

Derailing Dysfunction: Can a Labour Government Revive Britain’s Railways?

Britain's railway system is in dire straits. The recent Christmas chaos at Euston and cancellations across the country, coupled with a 5% fare hike in 2024, was another kick in the teeth for British travellers who are already paying the highest fairs in Europe for a railway system that is no longer fit for purpose.

 

A recent journey to the London O2 from Leicester with my mum would have cost us £75 each for an open return. That’s just under 40p a mile. To save money, we chose instead to drive three hours over what could have been a 90-minute train journey. I’ve travelled by train my entire life, but it wasn’t until I lived in the Netherlands that the abnormality of our railways hit home. Dutch trains ran on time and frequently; I could cycle in and out of stations, tap in and out with my travel card, and prices were fair and predictable. Driving never felt like a better option.

 

The litany of issues plaguing British rail travel, from broken facilities to delayed services, have become daily experiences for British travellers and have contributed to the normalisation of subpar services. What we have is not normal; our infrastructure ranks 29th globally[i] – below India and just above Kazakhstan. We should be outraged at the managed decline of our trains.

 

Railways aren't just about transportation; they are crucial for achieving net-zero goals and promoting social mobility. Millions in our country lack access to private transport, making quality and accessible rail travel critical for enabling people to access more opportunities beyond the limits of their communities.

 

In the UK, one in five households do not have access to a car, which rises to two out of three low-income households[ii]. 1.5 million people are estimated to be in “transport poverty”, defined as people living in low-income areas more than one mile from the nearest bus/railway station[iii]. Ethnic minorities, women, young people not in education, employment, or training (NEETs), older people and students are most at risk of transport poverty[iv]

 

Quality and accessibility railways can unlock social mobility by allowing those without the means of alternative private transport to access social, leisure and job opportunities that might otherwise become unavailable or inaccessible. It directly impacts improving social outcomes for the poorest in society.

 

Railways also matter for meeting our net-zero targets. If we don’t get a grip, we’ll be stuck with a car-led transport system that endangers those goals. At a time when we need to protect our planet’s health and revive local economics, we need the railways to pull their weight. There is a risk that the managed decline will make way instead for heavily polluting road-building programmes, which under this current government seems to be the preferred approach[v].

 

Privatisation and the system of franchising set up by the Tories have a lot to answer for when trying to understand how we arrived here. A fragmented system has meant nobody is in control, and the lack of accountability has led to a dearth of long-term investments and escalating costs. The franchising model, dividing responsibilities among private entities, has only fuelled inconsistency and confusion for passengers.

 

The privatisation model, introduced by John Major, split British Rail into three parts. Private Train Operating Companies (TOCs) would bid to run franchises of specific routes. Railtrack, a new private company, would take responsibility for railway infrastructure (cables, tracks), and rolling stock (the trains themselves) would be leased out to specific TOCs per franchise agreements by private rolling stop companies.

 

Railtrack failed almost immediately. The tragic Hatfield train crash in 2000, caused by damaged tracks, exposed Railtrack’s negligence. Soon after, networking was re-nationalised and bought under the control of National Rail, which continues to operate the infrastructure today.  The model also meant that TOCs operated on short-term contracts and were responsible for operating services but had little incentive to make any long-term investments into infrastructure beyond the term of their contracts, which typically lasted seven years.

 

The franchising model was destined for failure as private operators lacked genuine control over a fragmented and geographically intricate railway network. This resulted in a lack of standardised passenger experiences and pricing. Fares vary widely, from 15p to 62p per mile, and the quality of the passenger experience was entirely dependent on the specific company operating the line in a given region.

 

The model was eventually dropped in 2020 when the pandemic struck, and passenger levels fell off a cliff, which meant the government had to step in to cover the losses and ensure the TOCs could continue to operate profitably. It also highlighted that true free markets will never be fully at play when it comes to public services because companies can operate without financial risk, knowing the government will always have to step in when things go awry.

 

The franchising model has now been replaced by a concession-based model, where the government pays private companies a management fee to run the service. However, fares, timetables, and risks sit with the government, and the private operators continue to hold no commercial risk. The plan was for a new arms-length body in Great British Railways to oversee the network's contracts and running to move towards a more unified system. What would have been a move in a positive direction, with no legislation planned or in place, now seems to have been kicked into the long grass.

 

With Labour on track to win the next general election, hope is on the horizon. The party has committed to re-nationalisation and recently announced a review of rail infrastructure delivery led by former Siemens UK boss and Vice-Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Jürgen Maier.[vi]

 

Nationalisation isn’t a panacea, but in the case of Britain’s railways, it’s a sensible move. Centralised control of a complex, fragmented, and broken public service is badly needed.

 

Using the railways needs to be simple, flexible, and convenient, and the TFL network offers a model of the simplicity we could offer passengers. Predictable pricing, cheaper single-leg tickets that don’t cost the same as return leg journeys, pay-as-you entry and exit at stations.

 

This can only be achieved where there is the promise of long-term investment. The era of privatised railways heeded little long-term investment because of a lack of certainty and control. A long-term railway infrastructure plan would create the conditions for a simpler, predictable, and affordable system that benefits passengers and workers.

 

Ideological debates should not overshadow the practical advantages of nationalisation. With the evident failure of privatisation over the past 24 years, embracing nationalisation is necessary, and our railways are already effectively nationalised in all but name. Foreign-state-owned companies wield significant influence, and whenever private operators have failed, the British state has stepped in to take control.

 

Transpennine Express, South Eastern, LNER, Northern Rail, Transport for Wales, Scot Rail, and Caledonian Express were all nationalised due to the failure of private operators. National Rail was set up to run the network to take over from the failed Railtrack, and those TOCs that remain privately operated are foreign state-owned companies of Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Hong Kong and Japan. It’s quite astonishing that nationalised state operators from all over the world, but not the British state, have been allowed to run our railways.

 

Railways might not be the issue that decides the next election, but it represents another clear dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives. On the one hand, Labour is committing to bringing ownership of railways into public hands, so we no longer subsidise the cost of rail fares of our European neighbours, whilst the Tories remain silent on a problem that has worsened under their watch.

 

Serious reform is overdue, and only one party seems ready to address it.

 


[iii] Sustrans, “Locked Out: Transport Poverty in England”, 2012

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