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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A voice for the city: how should mayors respond to terror attacks?

Andy Burnham speaking in Manchester yesterday. Image: Getty.

When Andy Burnham, a former British government minister, won the election to be Greater Manchester’s Metro Mayor recently he was probably focused on plans for the region’s transport, policing and housing – and, of course, all the behind the scenes political work that goes on when a new role is created. The Conversation

And yet just a few weeks after taking on the role, terrorism has proved to be his first major challenge. Following the horrific bomb attack following a concert at one of Manchester’s most popular venues, he quickly has had to rise to the challenge.

It is a sad fact of life that as a senior politician, you will soon have to face – and deal with – a shocking incident of this kind.

These incidents arrive regardless of your long term plans and whatever you are doing. Gordon Brown’s early tenure as UK prime minister, for example, saw the Glasgow terror incident – which involved an attempted car bombing of the city’s airport in June 2007. Just four days into his premiership, Brown was dealing with the worst terrorist incident in Britain since the attacks on London in July 2005. Andy Burnham now finds himself in a similar situation.


Giving Manchester a voice

For Burnham, as the mayor and messenger of Manchester, an attack of this scale needs a response at several levels.

There is the immediately practical – dealing with casualties. There is the short term logistical – dealing with things like transport and closures. And there is the investigation and (hopefully) prevention of any follow ups.

But he will also need a “voice”. People look to particular figures to give a voice to their outrage, to talk about the need for calm, to provide reassurance, and to offer unity and express the sadness overwhelming many.

Part of the thinking behind the UK government’s enthusiasm for elected mayors was a perceived need to provide strong, local leaders. And a strong, local leader’s voice is exactly what is needed in Manchester now.

There is a certain choreography to the response to these events. It tends to go: a brief initial reaction, a visit to the scene, then a longer statement or speech. This is then usually followed by a press conference and interviews, along with visits to those affected. I say this not to be callous, but to highlight the huge demand the news media places on leading political figures when tragedy strikes.

‘We are strong’

As expected, Burnham made a speech on the morning after the attack. It is probably better described as a statement, in that it was short and to the point. But despite its brevity, in nine paragraphs, he summed up just about every possible line of thought.

The speech covered evil, the shared grieving and the need for the city to carry on. He also praised the work of the emergency services, and highlighted the need for unity and the very human reaction of the local people who provided help to those affected.

Andy Burnham on Sky News. Image: screenshot.

Burnham now has the task of bringing people together while there is still doubt about many aspects of what happened. A vigil in the centre of Manchester was rapidly planned for Tuesday evening, and there will be many other potential initiatives to follow.

Incidents like this tend to leave a large and long-lasting footprint. The effects of the bomb will last for years, whether in concrete reality or in people’s awareness and memories. And Burnham must now lead the effort to ensure Manchester emerges from this shocking incident with cohesion and strength.

Paula Keaveney is senior lecturer in public relations & politics at Edge Hill University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.