What policy has support from 52% of Tories, 79% of Labour voters, 73% of UKIP fruitcakes and 64% of the few remaining Liberal Democrats, yet is condemned as being wildly left wing? That’s right, renationalising the railways!
It’s the policy that will boost any party’s poll ratings; a political open goal that even the most incompetent minister-cum-striker should be able to score. Yet, for some reason it’s only being discussed as a ‘bold’ potential idea by the left of the Labour Party, though it has been Green Party policy for years. Miliband’s personal ratings rose 8% and Labour’s support by 5% after the announcement of energy price freezes at Labour’s 2013 conference – if they promised to bring the railways back into public ownership, the boost would be significantly larger.
Of course, promising to reinstate the death penalty or shut the borders to immigrants would have similar popular appeal, and populism is not the best way to decide policy. Renationalisation has more than public opinion behind it, however, it has both financial and service related benefits.
One of the main arguments for privatisation was that it would save the government billions of pounds, in fact, it was claimed by the Major government that privatising the railways would eventually lead to net income for the Exchequer. This has not been the case; in fact, the real cost to the taxpayer (that adjusted for inflation) has more than doubled, from £2.4 billion to £5.4 billion. Yes passenger numbers have also doubled during this period, but couple this with a doubling of the real revenue of the railways, and something doesn’t add up. If we accept the revenue doubling is a result of the doubling in the number of passengers, how can we justify the 100% increase in cost to the taxpayer as well?
Some say investment is the reason for soaring costs; train operating companies (TOCs), have had to spend a lot of money to combat the obvious underinvestment in our railways during the 1980s, apparently. This could be at least mildly acceptable if the investment had actually taken place, but the railways are not twice as good today as they were in 1992; electrification has only been extended to a further 300km of track, a rate of 15km per year. This is not good enough for such a large increase in fares and taxpayer subsidies.
Renationalisation would be a relatively simple process; all but two of Britain’s rail franchises are up for tender during the next Parliament. Instead of re-offering them for tender, a sensible government would bring the franchises under state control and unify them into a single, national operator. The railways are a natural monopoly, and by unifying the passenger services under one body, there would be significant benefits in administrative cost savings, pushing down rolling stock costs (as bigger contracts to hire will decrease per unit prices of trains) and through the reduction of antagonistic behaviour between TOCs.
Underinvestment was one of British Rail’s major, fatal flaws, but that can be addressed by legislating and through the wise use of excess revenue. After writing off investments, TOCs together make profits of hundreds of millions of pounds. We can increase investment, and reduce fares if we renationalise the railways, by reallocating the inflated profits of the TOCs. We can invest in new trains, electrification and other improvement projects, whilst ensuring people are not priced off the trains. Other European nations, such as France and Germany have mostly or wholly nationalised rail services, yet they enjoy cheaper per-kilometre fares and higher levels of customer satisfaction. It works elsewhere, why not here?
Renationalisation. It is the rarest of policies, enjoying broad cross-voter support, whilst making economic sense. It works in Europe; it will save Britain money and ensure higher quality rail services. It’s not a bold policy Ed, it should be obvious – promise to renationalise in 2015.
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed that Network Rail’s interest rates are higher than those in the public sector, and that as a result the company has had to pay £560m more in interest than would have been the case under public ownership. We apologise to Network Rail for these inaccuracies.
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