The recent news that rail fares are due to increase yet again has once again raised questions about whether the rail network in the UK should be taken back into public ownership. When John McDonnell announced earlier this year that Labour would consider reviving British Rail in order to bring “full integration” to the rail network, there was much speculation as to what this might look like in practice, and whether it was a good idea.
Jonathan Cowie of the Independent was not alone in expressing caution about a rush to nationalisation, suggesting that a re-evaluation of the existing franchise system might be preferable. Yet we do not have to search for long to find state-owned systems that offer preferable solutions to our current system.
One such system is that operated in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, which, later this year, will feature in the latest series of Michael Portillo's Great Railway Journeys. One of the biggest criticisms of the rail network in NSW is that its infrastructure is outdated, meaning travel times are slow enough to make air travel the preferred option. In spite of this fault, however, the gulf in ticket prices between NSW and Britain is sufficient to raise awkward questions for those who defend our privatised system.
By way of illustration, a journey from Sheffield Midland Station to London St. Pancras via Chesterfield and Derby takes roughly two hours, getting you there in relative speed and comfort. The only drawback is the cost. If you aren't able to plan your schedule weeks in advance, a one-way ticket can reach £40-50 within a week of travel, and up to £75 pounds purchase on the day.
Meanwhile, in NSW, a journey from Sydney to Newcastle, another former steel and coal city which lies 100 miles north along the Pacific coast, costs a fraction of this price. From Monday to Saturday, a trip to Newcastle costs A$8 (£4.50) and on Sunday just $2.70 (£1.50). And these, remember, are on-the-day prices. In addition, on Sunday there is a $2.70 fare cap, meaning that the charge to your Opal card (an Oyster Card equivalent) is a nominal $0.23 (10p).
During a recent episode of This Week, “Choo Choo” Portillo strongly defended the privatisation of British Rail, emphasising that the number of tragic rail accidents that had occurred during his time in government in the early 1990s had been partly responsible for persuading him that the operator had to be privatised. He is known also for boasting that the privatisation the government he served in pushed through is responsible for the rise in passenger numbers in the past twenty years.
During his new series, Portillo will travel from Sydney to Broken Hill, NSW. An economy seat for the trip booked a week in advance will cost approximately £35 for the 600-mile journey.
For those wishing to simulate the same journey in the UK, one can purchase a ticket for the 600-mile journey from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh. A week in advance, this ticket is priced at £183 on the National Rail Enquiries website. Has Portillo ever discussed the price of his rail tickets during his show? What he will make of the NSW system in comparison to Britain?
The cost of rail transport in the UK is scandalous. It impacts not only on the ability of people to access jobs and training in other cities, but also inhibits their cultural mobility. Portillo may have had his reasons for advocating the privatisation of British Rail, but he should now explain why the current British system is superior to that offered elsewhere. It is noteworthy that the company responsible for operating the NSW system, Transport for New South Wales, is a statutory authority, created by the Liberal-National Party coalition which took control of the NSW Government in 2011. (The Liberals are the Australian equivalent of the Conservative Party.)
Such is the scale of the problem in the UK that it has recently been remarked that air travel is becoming a cheaper and more convenient method of intercity travel than rail. This would be acceptable in Australia – a train journey from Sydney to Melbourne can take nine hours – making a one hour flight for $50 dollars a reasonable investment for commuters. However, the fact that it can be cheaper to be flown in a private plane from London to Newcastle rather than take the three hour train journey indicates that our system is broken.
If the Labour Party are serious about reforming rail travel, then the NSW system should be examined closer as a model for renewing British rail infrastructure.