As universal truths go, it’s not far off “death and taxes”: Britain’s rail network is privatised, the service is abysmal, fares are stratospheric. To restore our railway as a network we can be proud of, it must be renationalised. And we know that will work, because continental European railways are cheap, punctual, pleasurable and nationalised. Right?
Wrong. The binary debate over the future of UK rail is now so entrenched that we have increasingly ceased to question its fundamental tenets. This retreat to dogmatic positions risks doing a grave disservice to the travelling public – and we urgently need to consider both our own railway and those in Europe in a much more nuanced light.
John Band has already knocked down a few shibboleths in his 2015 article on rail fares, so I won’t cover the same ground again. Suffice to say, looking at our own railway’s structure, government control is so pervasive that it is not really credible to claim it is private at all. As in Europe, the railway’s fixed assets (track, stations, signalling etc.) are in public hands, following the reclassification in 2014 of Network Rail as a government entity.
Franchises, meanwhile, are so tightly specified by the Department for Transport (DfT) that any room for entrepreneurial activity has been all but squeezed out. Yes, DfT really does tell operators how many of their trains can have a catering trolley.
Yet arguably even more pressing for UK rail policy is the need to understand the profound changes happening to Europe’s railways as market reforms take root. It is still perfectly possible to jump on a train in Paris, Rome or Munich and find that train is run by a public sector operator, which is often part of a state holding group which also includes the infrastructure manager: train operator Trenitalia and infrastructure manager RFI in the case of Italy, for example.
However, over the past 20 years, EU policymakers have been looking for ways to make the European rail network more competitive. Policy measures have mostly focused on technical harmonisation between disparate national rail networks, but opening up of rail services to competition has also been a key strand.
This liberalisation has been resisted for years in many member states – but we are now reaching a point where the tide is turning, and the widely held perception in Britain of ‘nationalised’ continental railways is increasingly inaccurate. Perhaps most pernicious of all is the misleading suggestion that somehow Deutsche Bahn, SNCF or NS, the Dutch parent of Abellio, are sitting at home chuckling as filthy lucre from the fares of hardworking British commuters trickles into the coffers.
Far from it: most, but not all, European countries have seen some degree of liberalisation.
Take Italy, for starters. On 7 February, Global Infrastructure Partners (owner of London’s Gatwick Airport) made a successful offer of €1·9bn to acquire a company called Nuovo Trasporti Viaggiatori.
Who is that, you ask? Well, NTV runs pointy red high speed trains up, down and across the country, mostly on the dedicated high speed rail network that Italy has been building since the 1960s. Serving destinations including Turin, Venice and Naples, the company runs 50 trains per day on the key business route between Milan and Rome. Using the Italo brand, NTV competes head to head with the public sector operator Trenitalia, and between them they have gained a large majority of the rail/air market between the two hubs.
Unlike most British train companies however, NTV has no franchise or contract with government. It uses the EU’s ‘open access’ rules, paying access charges to use the national network. Its services are genuinely entrepreneurial as a result: if they are not viable, they would not survive.
NTV was established in 2011 by a consortium of high profile investors led by Luca di Montezemolo, whom Formula 1 motor racing fans will know as a former Team Principal at the Ferrari team. (The Italo trains’ scarlet livery is not a coincidence.)
For a few years, the state incumbent sought to frustrate NTV’s ambition amid a lack of strong independent regulation. But NTV has expanded from a niche operator to a significant player, at least on the core inter-city axes. As a consequence, private competition has compelled Trenitalia to up its game.
NTV’s state of the art Alstom trains were soon matched by a rival fleet procured by Trenitalia from Bombardier and Hitachi. Both have a whopping four classes of seating and, naturally, top quality espresso in the buffet car. More importantly, the number of services available between major cities has grown, but the rivalry has kept prices down.
There are lessons for here for Britain. We also have open access players in the shape of Grand Central and Hull Trains, operating out of London King’s Cross. Yet neither has the scale of NTV in Italy, and the government is lukewarm at best about operators who exist outside the contractual headlock of a franchise. For advocates of renationalisation however, there is a major quandary: Hull Trains and Grand Central regularly top passenger satisfaction tables, which suggests that more entrepreneurial zeal, not less, could lead to better services, at least in the long-distance segment.
In Italy, the inter-city network has been opened up to competition, while regional trains are, for now, still run by the state. In Germany, the opposite is true. Almost 40 per cent of German regional trains are now run by companies other than Deutsche Bahn, while DB retains a near monopoly on long-distance routes. Regional rail operating contracts are typically let by regional authorities (usually the Bundesländer), rather than by central government – but just as in Britain, the trains themselves are increasingly leased from the private sector rather than owned by the state.
Trenitalia is the second largest operator in Germany, while many of the companies holding UK franchises are also active. Indeed, British companies like National Express have made major inroads: its chief executive said last year that German contracts were now more attractive to private operators than UK franchising.
Where British and German ‘franchising’ really diverge is in costs. Typically, when DB loses a contract to a competitor, the cost of operation goes down, with a positive impact on subsidy and therefore fares. In an extreme example, Go-Ahead (yes, parent of loathed Southern Rail) has agreed to run several routes around Stuttgart for a period of 13 years from 2019. That contract is costing the regional authority in Baden-Württemberg approximately half the amount per train-kilometre it was giving to DB under the previous agreement. A raft of improvements is planned, including new trains across the network. Yet with such a dramatic reduction in the cost base, the authority also has the option to hold down fares.
Once again, the implications for British rail policy are clear. We should be asking why German rail liberalisation is driving down operating costs while quality of service is broadly improving. Instead, we get increasingly simplistic assertions about the benefits of renationalisation, which hark back to an increasingly hazy recollection of British Rail.
The opening up of Europe’s networks to competition has polarised opinion across the sector, and debate will continue for years to come as to the pros and cons. Indeed, there are areas where the British system has a clear advantage over, say, Germany – for example, a unified ticketing system which allows booking between any two stations, irrespective of operator.
But please let us not labour anymore under romanticised ideas of ‘nationalised’ European rail based on experience from the odd long weekend away. The debate over the future of Britain’s railways deserves a better level of understanding – and there is much to learn from the European experience.