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Commuter train towards Reading, Kintbury

Commuter train towards Reading, Kintbury. Photo: Brian Robert Marshall / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The Tories' idea of renationalising rail isn't quite what it's being packaged as. Kieran Crowe dissects what we know of the plans for Great British Railways so far

Three years to produce this?

On 20 May this year, the transport minister Grant Shapps presented a report he had produced with his “independent chair of rail review” Keith Williams in which they, apparently, had announced the unthinkable: Britain’s railways were coming under government control. Although the re-nationalisation of the railways has been popular with the public for a long time, the politicians and the rail sector have been avoiding the prospect doggedly.

Even when forced to take part of the system back into a form of public ownership, as happened with East Coast Mainline in 2009, due to private operators simply walking away, the government has done everything it can to find someone to sell the franchise to. These are often, ironically, state transport companies in other countries, enabling those states to subsidise their own public transport at the expense of British passengers!

But now, we are told, things are going to be different: by 2023 all the regions will be served by Great British Railways, with some autonomy for those parts of the Scottish and Welsh rail controlled by the devolved governments. At face value, this seems like an amazing change of tune from the Tories. But is it?

Well, the truth is that despite claiming that this announcement was three years in the making, the details released so far do not seem to support this. In fact, what little we know up to this point does not seem to make a great deal of sense, except in the context of a major Tory assault on transport workers and a potentially disastrous view of future rail services which will stagnate, or even decline, rather than expand as our society attempts to decarbonise.

The bizarre mess of privatised rail

British Rail was one of the first aspects of the post-World War Two social democratic settlement that the Tories attempted to destroy in its entirety. The John Major government of the 1990s, its popularity shattered by economic woes and very aware it would not survive another election, decided to push through one of the most extreme neoliberal experiments they could.

Other countries had previously privatised trains, but in Britain, even the tracks went. By 1997 when the government did end, this had created a swath of Train Operating Companies (TOCs) to run rail services in various regions as well as Railtrack, a commercial track operating business. That last entity proved to be a stretch too far: standards of maintenance had severely dropped on the rails, compromising safety, and ultimately leading to the Potters Bar derailment disaster of 2002. Railtrack was renationalised as Network Rail not long after, which it still exists as.

The TOCs never stopped, though, and they have been running rail services ever since the 90s. These companies are extremely fond of pointing out that passenger numbers had, before the Covid-19 pandemic, been steadily rising during that time. They are less keen to talk about the cost of rail journeys, however, which have risen far more and well above inflation. In addition to high base costs, however, the fragmentary nature of TOCs, all of which have their own staff and vehicles, cause massive additional complications.

Attributing delays and penalties, a non-technical analysis of in-service faults to determine commercial liability, is a massive job taking much time (though not directly supporting the service) and the purchasing of tickets is made incredibly complex by the fact that a single journey may involve purchasing tickets from multiple TOCs. The primary reason why the rail ticket is so primitive compared to, say, the contactless ticketing one uses on London Transport, is that TOCs have actively rejected any move to have a more flexible ticket sales system to rein their control over the pricing of journeys.

As mentioned, privatised rail has never really been popular in this country and has at times been thoroughly controversial considering some seriously big fares increases over the years. This situation did not go from unstable to untenable, however, until the pandemic hit last year. The public was neither willing nor permitted to travel normally, and ticket sales dropped by around 80%.

The government entered into “Emergency Measures Agreements”, ostensibly providing public funding just as temporary stop-gap, only to be called out a few months later by the Office of National Statistics, who officially reclassified the railways as being private in name only. The Tories were presiding over the factual collapse of the system they’d established 25 years earlier, and they were being told to just admit it.

The big idea – whatever that is

So, what is GBR going to do fix the problems of the rail system? The answer now is that we do not know, and the government is not telling us. That the fragmentation of the system is a serious problem is not really controversial at this point, but while the Shapps-Williams report does talk about ending franchises for TOCs, it still seems committed to having privatised train operating companies… so, still basically just TOCs, then?

There are words said about a national-level contracts, and offering more flexible and modern ways to buy tickets, such as Transport for London uses (highly ironic, at a time when the Tories seem determined to annihilate TfL, but there you go). The problem here is that national-level ticketing and journey planning and autonomous, regional train operation quite simply do not go together.

As stated, our archaic and incomprehensible ticketing systems are needed by the TOCs so that they can set prices such that they guarantee profits for shareholders. TfL can set its prices centrally and define a full interlocking timetable because it is the operator: separating the powers of the ticketing system and the timetable from the responsibilities of the operator is quite an unattractive business prospect.

If it’s been difficult to get private companies to take up operating opportunities up to this point, the government may discover that it is quite impossible to get anyone to bid for them in a scenario where they will have costs and revenues essentially determined over their heads. The only way I can see that this particular square peg could be forced through that round hole would be with a veritable sledgehammer of public subsidies that make the Office for National Statistics roll their eyes again.

On the subject of who these private companies are likely to be, it’s a real case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The “proposal” that companies from outside the rail sector be encouraged to bid only sound novel to anyone who doesn’t realise that several bus operators got involved, as did Richard Branson’s Virgin.

The bus companies did on rail exactly what they have been doing to buses for forty years: mostly raising prices. Virgin, meanwhile, idiotically attempted to remodel West Coast Mainline on their Atlantic airline service, right down to commissioning trains using an airline specification procedure, much of which “innovation” they were essentially forced to give up on a very short way into the 2000s. There is no word yet on if the Tories would like to invite more state transport companies in other countries to bid, but we can reasonably assume they would not say no.

It may well be that these incredibly vague and underwhelming plans get a major revamp in the near future, but at the moment GBR looks more than anything like the Tory vision for the NHS: a public-flavoured brand and logo, disguising a privately-owned, but highly subsidised system, primarily intended to make money for rich investors. There certainly isn’t much to look forward to, but it is definitely worth mentioning what there is to fear.

Keith Williams and “Workforce Reform”

Grant Shapps' point man in this process has some serious form. An arch-privatiser at Royal Mail, and before that leader of major attacks on the workforce at British Airways, Williams has wasted no time in doing a spot disaster capitalism in the wake of Covid. His initial reports to the Government contained statements about using the present crisis to seek “opportunities for efficiencies” and that “these include the elimination of duplication and workplace reform”.

In case you needed any more evidence that he viewed jobs and pensions as the key target here, the Department for Transport immediately put out a job advert for a new position with ominous title of “Director, Rail Pensions and Workforce Reform”. A union-buster general is being recruited.

All four unions in rail – the RMT, Aslef, TSSA and Unite’s transport section – are in early stages of what is likely to be an extremely long and serious dispute with the government and all employers. What little detail has emerged so far is predictably bleak: the government is pointing to the failure of passenger numbers to rise much above 40% of pre-pandemic levels, and is painting a pessimistic picture of those figures ever returning to comparable heights. It is tempting to suggest that this is partly because it makes for a strong bargaining position, but also partially because despite being notionally committed to fighting climate change, the Tory Party is still in no mind to get the public out of cars and onto trains.

The reality for the rail industry in the next two years is not going to be some new era of reconstructing a more rational rail system, but a heavy period of industrial struggle in which the government attempts to break one of the few sections of organised labour it has never gotten to grips with. You can see now how the rightwing press will spin stories about “communist rail union bosses” who had been demanding nationalisation for decades but are now trying to spoil it for everyone. GBR’s main role could end up being one of propaganda, if the attempts to have a privatisation cake and eat it cannot be made to work.

What would actually thinking big look like?

GBR, then, is basically nothing to get excited about. There are no ideas, and even the old ideas are ones that didn’t work before. To get anything out of this situation at all, I would suggest that the left attempts to use the conversation potentially started by this non-announcement to talk about what a future railway would actually be like.

The government is deliberately vague about how to deal with the immediate problems caused by the pandemic. How do we get people to see rail as a valid option again? How do we deal with the turn away from 5-day-a-week commuting? We can look to much better ways of running rail for answers to these, but inevitably you do end up running into the issue that where public transport is better managed, it is done so by public bodies. That’s not to say that regional autonomy can’t work, for example Mersey Rail and Transport for the North actually cooperate very well, but these are more similar to TfL: public authorities under democratic oversight, not businesses subcontracted by an authority. They are better for staff and passengers, and have to be fought for.

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