Has the government just renationalised Britain’s railways?

A pity, it was working so well. Image: Getty.

This morning, in what can only be characterised as a whimper rather than a wail, the rail franchising system that has been in place in Britain since 1996 came to a rather unceremonious end.

With travel limited to only critical workers as a result of the rapid spread of coronavirus – EVERYONE ELSE: STAY INDOORS – there was never a chance that the over-stretched rail system would cope in its current guise, and it was likely that government would have to step in.

And step in it has. Rather than taking the franchises back in-house (as it has previously done with LNER and Northern using so-called “operators of last resort”), the government has essentially re-awarded the franchise holders with quick-and-easy “stay-put, we’ll pay you” contracts.

This isn’t full-blown nationalisation. The private companies that currently run franchised trains will keep doing so, except that rather than paying a set premium to government based on their earnings, and keeping they rest, they’ll be paid a set amount by government (2 per cent over the cost of running the service) to keep trains moving, albeit to a reduced timetable. This is the operator model already used by Merseyrail, London Overground and TfL Rail. 

However, when rolled out across the whole country, this does represent a radical shift in how our railways will be operated. And despite the stated expiry date of six months for this arrangement, it is very unlikely that we’ll see rail franchising return afterwards.

The number of companies with an interest in operating Britain’s franchised train services has diminished over the last decade, as government has cranked up its payment/risk management requirements and the overcrowded nature of the rail network has left less room for “commercial innovation”.

Given that passenger numbers have dropped by upwards of 70 per cent compared to this time last year, it was inevitable that many of the franchise holders – several of which were already on the brink of collapse thanks to over-eager bidding and delayed infrastructure delivery – would default on their payments to government.

In the background, the long-delayed report by Keith Williams as part of his review into the future of Britain’s railways had also widely been expected to end franchising. That review kicked-off back in September 2018 in the aftermath of the timetable collapse earlier that year. It is widely expected that Williams will propose bringing Britain’s railway operations closer in line with those of Japan, with joint train-infrastructure operators delivering services over larger geographical areas. At the very least, franchising, in the words of the chair himself, was “not the way forward”.

The report has been repeatedly delayed since the change in Prime Minister (Johnson or Cummings, take your pick), no doubt as a result of differences of opinion across government. But the inevitable demise of the current franchise holders has somewhat forced the issue.

What’s more, the share prices of the transport companies operating franchises have dropped to such a dramatic extent over the last month that there is only a minute chance that they would bid for franchises again even if government did decide to attempt a resurrection. For example, National Express’s share price is down at post-2008 crash levels; Go Ahead and Stagecoach are back where they were in 2003; and First Group’s share price is lower than it ever has been since trading began back in 1995.

So what will happen after the six months has elapsed? My bet is on the rail operator map being slightly re-drawn, and then new management contracts being given out, in line with the expected proposals of the Williams Review.

It’s worth noting that government hasn’t mentioned the open access operators – Eurostar, Grand Central, Heathrow Express and Hull Trains – who operate outside of the franchising system already. Will these operators be left to fend for themselves, and their inevitable collapse just be part of the COVID-19 collateral? It is certainly the case that the open access operators were a tricky match for Williams’ expected proposals. But would a Conservative government really let – arguably – the only true success stories of the privatised British rail operation fail?

For many of you sitting working from home, you’ll have little doubt that the spread of coronavirus will result in seismic changes to the wider world. For the microcosmos of Britain’s railways, that change has already happened.

RIP Britain’s rail franchising system: 1996 – 2020.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor. 

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.