For God’s sake don’t re-nationalise the Railways!

Yesterday’s news on rail fare increases has, as can be expected, been met with the usual cries of outage by special interest groups like Passenger Focus and the RMT. Via Facebook, I found this e-petition to re-nationalise the railways, which has already attracted the signature’s of 1,969 mad fools.  Yes, let’s get the government even more involved in an industry they already wreaked!

Railways are one of those areas (along with health provision) where unless you’re an anorak the pre-state history is almost forgotten. Almost the entire rail network in the UK today was built by private firms before World War 1, and were run successfully for well over a hundred years under private ownership. Yes there were issues after each world war (when the industry was de-facto nationalised and run into the ground to support the war effort), but it was only once the state took over that things really hit the buffers. Wikipedia states:

At its peak in 1950, British Railway’s system was around 21,000 miles (34,000 km) and 6,000 stations. By 1975, the system had shrunk to 12,000 miles (19,000 km) of track and 2,000 stations; it has remained roughly this size thereafter.

All that private capital investment wasted! And they want to give them another go at running it?

Of course the current system is a mess (which even the ASI, who helped draw it up acknowledge), and needs sorting out. Vertical integration, where track and trains are run by the same firm seems to work better than the current system where tracks are owned and maintained by a different organisation. However vertical integration would not fix the biggest  issue since time immemorial – a lack of competition.

It is competition plus Government subsidy and fare caps, that causes the current cycle of endless fare increases. Competing railways can work, I saw this when I visited Japan a few years ago with small cities like Nara having two competing rail lines. Unfortunately there is probably little chance of getting the investment necessary in today’s climate.

Instead I have a modest proposal: when restructuring the industry rather than a PLC go for a mutual structure, and give season ticket holders voting rights at AGM like a building society. If the passengers (and staff) had a greater say in remuneration packages of managers, fares, track and rolling stock investment then we might get somewhere.

Oh, and definitely keep the government the hell away, for whenever a politician meets a train it usually ends in disaster.

Railways in Britain, current (black) and closed by the state (blue)