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Why nationalising Britain's railways is a good idea, sort of.

The state of our railways is a national embarrassment. To traverse across our relatively small isles by train will set you back hundreds of pounds. London to Newcastle return? £152. Edinburgh to London return? Near enough £180. Heaven forbid you needed to go from Manchester Piccadilly to Plymouth. That would set you back £206. 

Whilst these eye-watering prices are already impossible to justify, what compounds the misery of any mere mortal who needs to travel across our country is the substandard, frankly embarrassing, functionality of the rail network. 

The trains are guaranteed to be late or delayed, if running at all. You’re almost certain to be relegated to an intolerable ‘floor seat’, provided all the ‘standing spaces’ aren’t full during rush hour. You might even be unable to board a train, with the sardine-packed commuters spilling out onto the platform every time the doors open at a station. Don’t worry though, for an extra hundred quid or more, you can sit in the vexatiously empty first class carriage. 

The insult doesn’t end there. The trains are dirty, poorly managed, and graffiti-riddled. That won’t stop the ticket inspectors from enforcing what can only be described as daylight robbery. 

Since June 2022, the rail trade unions have inflicted untold disruption and suffering upon the great commuter force of Britain. Countless times I, and my fellow commuters, have been left begrudgingly on a cold, wet and windy platform for the next train in an hour’s time (provided that one isn’t cancelled either!).  Now, I’d have sympathy with those on strike if I was paying a tenner to go from Birmingham to London, but when it sets me back anywhere from £60 to £100, you have to stop and think “where is all the money going?”. 

Well, I’ll tell you. It goes directly into the hands of futile, incompetent, greedy private operators that have been wilfully allowed to exploit our rail industry. Last year, rail bosses received bonuses upwards of £1m whilst over a thousand trains were cancelled daily at the height of the industrial action. Train operating companies are oligopolies. They hold the supply, they determine the price. Unless you can afford the luxury of a taxi or private charter, you’re going to have to stump up the extortionate costs. 

I recently travelled to Italy where I was astonished at the difference in standards and price. A 546 mile train journey from Milan to Bari? £71. Were there seats available? Yes. Were the trains clean? Yes. Whilst not exclusively on time, the lack of insulting cost and the presence of cleanliness was enough to mitigate any frustrations. The United Kingdom’s closest example would be the 785 mile Aberdeen to Penzance train journey for an astonishing £265. 

The United Kingdom needs and deserves a rail revolution. For the nation that invented the railway, this current state of affairs is very disheartening. 

What is the solution? Labour would have you think it is a fully nationalised, state-owned ‘Great British Railways’. I’d be wary to entrust the entirety of our railways to an already overloaded public sector, least of all in the hands of tax-and-spend Labour. However, a nationalised body, with privatised elements based on the Italian model, would surely put an end to transport torment for millions of British commuters. 

A hybrid model of nationalised railways with privatised elements would serve to leverage the strengths and benefits of both sectors to ensure efficiency. In essence, the railways themselves are state-owned, with the majority of services being public-run, with the ability for private operators to bid, with greater regulation, for certain services. 

By having a centralised command, coordinated planning, consistent standards, and streamlined operations would be easier to control and manage. The reintroduction of privatised components, such as certain services like ThamesLink, would maintain the presence of competition, which in turn would increase innovation and, again, efficiency. 

The public element of a nationalised railway would enable the government to hold the operating bodies to account. The public can be consulted on its expected performance standards. Private operators within this system would be incentivised to meet these standards, whilst not being able to run rampant with outrageously exorbitant ticket prices. The government could foster a competitive environment, to ensure efficacy and innovation, whilst preventing monopolistic or oligopolistic practices perniciously permeating our railways. The privatised elements, too, could serve to reduce the financial burden on the taxpayer. With Labour set to return to government imminently, this is wholly worth keeping in mind.  

I know I was harsh on the strikers earlier, but with a nationalised-private hybrid railways, job security and wages would be stabilised. Government investment into rail infrastructure could drive economic growth and create jobs. It would also allow for the government to ensure fair wages and stable employment. 

Most importantly, however, would be a reduction in price for consumers. A nationalised railway would be able to achieve greater economies of scale, ultimately reducing the overall cost of operations which can, and should, be passed down to commuters in the form of lower, justifiable ticket prices. I’d also argue that a cap should be introduced for interregional travel. Again, the hybrid model of nationalised privatisation would enable the government to regulate and limit ticket prices, to stop the working man from being robbed every time he dare need to take a train. 

A nationalised ‘Great British Railways’, as Labour envisages it, is sure to stifle innovation, efficiency, and overburden the taxpayer. Whilst you may only pay £20 to get to London from Birmingham, I’m sure you will pay the difference back in higher taxes, if not more. I would urge policymakers to give some serious consideration to a hybrid nationalised model, like that of Italy, to finally give the British people their much-deserved railways back. 

Image: Mattbuck

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