A nationalised railway doesn’t have to be rubbish – but this one probably would be

The good old days. Image: Getty

As the general election nears, the major parties are starting to set out their vision for Great Britain’s railways. The Conservative manifesto will appear later this week. Think-tanks associated with the sillier end of the party have lobbied for Network Rail to be privatised, which would be a disaster, so it’s worth keeping a look out.

But Labour’s manifesto was published on Tuesday. Stephen Bush has a good summary, and you can read the whole thing here. One of its more eye-catching pledges is “public ownership” for the railways.

As we’ve covered before, this covers a lot of ground. Network Rail, which owns the tracks, operates maintenance and signalling, manages new-build projects, and allocates and manages train paths, has been in the public sector since 2002, and under the direct control of the Department for Transport (DfT) since 2014.

The manifesto clarifies Labour’s line with the phrase “as franchises expire”. This implies it’s talking about train operating companies (TOCs), like Chiltern or Northern Rail. These are contracted by the DfT to run passenger train services: every few years there is a bidding auction to see who’ll pay the biggest premium for the right to operate trains on a given route.

The winning bidder must meet a service specification agreed with the DfT, pay track charges to Network Rail, lease the trains that are needed to operate the service, and pay staff. In exchange, it gets to set and collect fares on the route, subject to price caps laid down by the DfT, and to keep whatever’s left once it’s paid everyone else.

So if Labour wins a majority in next month’s election, then when franchises start expiring, they will be delivered in-house. There is a model for this, which has been successful on a small scale: the DfT has a subsidiary called Directly Operated Railways, which takes over from a franchisee if they go bust. When National Express East Coast went bust in 2009, DOR took the franchise and provided a good service. Although it fell short of the premiums NXEC had originally pledged to pay, it returned £235m in profit to the DfT in its final year of operation.

There are, however, two problems seeking to apply this small-scale success to Labour’s plans. One is simple scalability. When East Coast was benchmarked against private operators, it was very clear to everyone involved what a good job consisted of. But if the entire business is nationalised, there’s no obvious way to determine whether the public operator is providing good value for money, and not much incentive for it to do so.

There are structures that maintain benchmarking and competition under government control. The most obvious is in London, where TfL sets all aspects of the service and takes all the profit/loss risk, but ensures value for money by contracting out some operations. The same could be done by devolved regional governments (which would also enhance local accountability), and directly by the DfT for long distance and regional services.


This isn’t what’s happening, though. Labour’s pledge that the new operator “will be built on the platform of Network Rail” sounds more like an attempt to recreate the monolithic structure of British Rail. This is, at best, untested in the modern era.

The second problem with Labour’s manifesto version of nationalisation is the side promises being made. Explicit pledges include “ending the expansion of driver only operation” and “freezing fares”.

The first of these is a bad idea. Driver-only operation is a proven safe way of reducing costs without inconveniencing passengers, already used on 30 per cent of the network. The pledge has been modified from an earlier leaked draft which suggested DOO should be abolished altogether, but refusing to expand it takes away an opportunity to cut costs, with no benefit to passengers.

The second helps passengers more, but it’ll be expensive. Regulated train fares rise in line with inflation at about 2 per cent a year (1.8 per cent or 2.3 per cent, depending on whose methodology you use). With farebox revenue of £9.4bn, that’s an extra £200m a year to find in year 1, and £400m in year 2. After five years, there’ll be a £1bn/year gap compared to currently planned rises. And regulated fares are mainly used on already-full commuter trains, so there won’t be much volume growth to make up it.

Will abolishing TOCs pay for this? Annual TOC profits distributed to shareholders are £200m per year. So if the scale issues can be solved and the new model works as well as East Coast, then the savings in the first year will pay for the fares freeze. Hooray!

But this is a one-off gain: in the second year, we’ll need to find another £200m to pay for that year’s fare freeze. By year five, there’ll be a £800m/year revenue gap. AAnd we won’t be able to save money on guards to make up for it.

Overall, Labour’s rail plans are less terrifying and damaging than some of the options the Conservatives are contemplating – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with moving away from the TOC model in itself.

But the devil is in the detail, and the details here suggest that Labour’s plans are more focused on quid-pro-quos for the unions and cash bungs for commuters, than on the actual reason you might want to move away from the TOC model: the core job of shifting more people and freight onto the railways as efficiently and safely as possible.

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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