Rail privatisation hasn’t worked. It’s time to reverse it

The good old days. Image: Getty.

Just who exactly supports the UK’s privatised railway industry? It’s certainly not passengers, taxpayers, railway employees or increasingly many politicians.

The state-owned British Rail was privatised over several years starting in 1995. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was politically astute enough to avoid privatising this industry. But her successor, John Major, had no such doubts – he was convinced privatisation would ensure “greater responsiveness to the customer, and a higher quality of service and better value for money”.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s now time to call a halt on this misconceived and misguided experiment – it just isn’t working. It’s time to renationalise the whole industry.

The benefits of privatisation forecast by politicians never materialised. Fares are now much higher, infrastructure failures and train delays increasing, the train franchising system is floundering and passenger dissatisfaction is high.

British Rail, the former nationalised industry, was a fully vertically integrated industry. This meant that BR owned and was responsible for virtually every aspect of the railway business. One researcher found it to be “perhaps the most financially successful railway in Europe”. Government subsidy was only 15 per cent of revenue in 1994, making British Rail the least subsidised railway system in Europe at the time.

Privatisation saw the industry broken up into over 100 separate companies. This fragmentation has led to a complex contractual web of operational transactions between different industry players – with a profit mark up being extracted at every stage. Renationalisating the railways would put an end to the operational and structural absurdity of the industry – and be substantially less costly.

Dysfunctional franchise model

Passenger train operating companies are awarded on a franchised basis. Normally, the operators bid to pay the highest premium to the government to win the right to operate train services on specified routes. This is based on the revenue each bidding company considers they can extract from passengers after paying their premium.

Renationalisation would lead to abolition of the costly and dysfunctional method of awarding these franchises. It would abolish the convoluted gaming by operating companies, who frequently overbid on the most optimistic assumptions in order to win a franchise.

Take the example of the failing East Coast franchise. GNER and National Express have both already walked away from their East Coast commitments and Virgin East Coast is currently renegotiating its franchise. They can do this because the penalties for failing to deliver are too low.

What’s more, the whole costly and time-consuming refranchising process is repeated every seven or eight years. Renationalisation would bring a swift halt to this disruptive and costly process – and permit better long-term planning.

Fares through the roof

Certainly, the passenger hasn’t benefited by lower fares since privatisation. Only about 36 per cent of fare revenue is regulated by the government and, even then, fare increases are related to the higher retail price index (RPI) measure of inflation (and not the lower consumer price index). For unregulated fares, the train operators have not been slow to increase fare revenue well in excess of RPI. For example, across all operators, standard class unregulated fares have increased by nearly 30 per cent in real terms since privatisation.

Whenever the train operators have the freedom to raise fares they rarely fail to increase them to whatever the market can bear. The Trades Union Congress recently highlighted that British commuters are now “spending up to five times as much of their salary on season tickets” than their continental counterparts. A commuter season ticket in the UK costing £381 a month will cost the equivalent of £66 in France or £118 in Germany.

Neglected and costly infrastructure

Another key aspect of the privatised industry is the infrastructure company that owns the railway tracks, stations and signalling. The first infrastructure company, Railtrack plc, was a publicly listed company that had a short life. Within less than five years of floatation the came the fatal Hatfield rail crash, when an express train came off the track. An inquiry found that the disaster was directly related to Railtrack’s neglect of the infrastructure.

Railtrack’s successor, Network Rail, ultimately became a public sector body of the Department for Transport. But Network Rail has been hampered by Railtrack’s former neglect of its assets and higher costs resulting from the fragmented nature of the industry. Indeed, these issues meant that the McNulty report in 2011, commissioned by the then transport secretary, found the privatised rail industry had a high cost base and the costs per passenger-km would have to be reduced by 40 per cent to match railways in France, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.


Misguided support

Even the taxpayer would benefit from renationalisation. Under privatisation, state subsidies have nearly doubled in real terms. Direct government support has also previously been given to private sector train operators if their revenues fall below expectations. More recent franchisees can now receive these corporate state welfare “top-up” payments where, for example, there is fall in GDP or a slowdown in the London jobs market. Conventional private sector companies carry these business risks themselves – not so for the train companies. Renationalisation could reduce subsidies and have major financial gains for the tax payer.

Industry players frequently justify the success of privatisation by pointing to the growth in passenger traffic (passenger journeys have grown from 800m in 1996-97 to 1,729m in 2016-17). But this growth is despite privatisation; not because of it. Economic studies suggest this is down to other factors, such as employment levels, growth in GDP, property prices, leisure travel and road congestion – but not to privatisation.

The ConversationOverall, railway privatisation has failed to achieve its original objectives. Fares and state subsidies remain high, passengers are failing to obtain better value for money and industry unit costs remain stubbornly high. No other country has fully adopted the UK model of railway privatisation. And for good reason – it hasn’t worked.

John Stittle, Senior Lecturer in Accounting, University of Essex.

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

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.