An Australian rail network raises awkward questions for Michael Portillo

Choo, choo: a train at Metford, New South Wales. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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 One of the biggest criticisms of the rail network in NSW is that its infrastructure is outdated, meaning travel times are slow enough to make air travel the preferred option.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.

All of the ticket costs in this article were worked out on www.nationalrail.com and www.transportnsw.info.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.