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It’s Time to Change Our Trains

Our train system is expensive, overcrowded, and unreliable, and the government's latest plans do nothing to make it better – to really improve the railways, we need to take private profit out of the equation.

‘The biggest shake-up since the 1990s.’ That’s how the government’s new white paper setting out its plan for the future of the railways has been billed.

That itself would be enough, but the hyperbole doesn’t stop there. The government’s proposals include the establishment of ‘Great British Railways’ – a body that is largely a rebrand of its predecessor, Network Rail, and brings in some responsibilities previously held by the Department for Transport.

After spending nearly three years on a rail policy review, you might have expected that the detail of the proposals would be more than just a rebrand. But in reality, it is exactly that – a cosmetic change and a heap of rhetoric that leaves the whole basis of the privatised rail network intact.

When John Major’s government privatised the railways, a system of ‘franchises’ was set up. This was an attempt to inject an artificial element of competition into the network, meaning private companies would have to bid for contracts to run services. Those companies would then pay returns to the Department of Transport, while seeking to make more profit on ticket sales and commercial operations on board the trains.

Now, with Grant Shapps’ ‘biggest shake-up’, we will be left with a system of ‘concessions’, where private companies are given contracts to run services on the network. Sounds familiar? That’s because it’s the same in all but name. The only practical difference is that private rail operators will be paid a flat fee—or to put it another way, given a guaranteed profit margin—to run those services.

So despite the grand headlines, the reality is that when you step onto a train, the very same private rail operators will be responsible for getting you from A to B. The same private rail operators will be hoovering up money from your rail fares and syphoning it off as profit. The entire infrastructure of the privatised model remains alive and well.

Worse still, by guaranteeing the private operators a flat fee, the government has enshrined one of the central tenets of privatisation, which we’ve seen time and time again. Profits are privatised as companies are free to pay out dividends, while risk is nationalised. Irrespective of whether passenger numbers are rising or falling, the state will still stump up the cash for the private sector.

This twisted experiment has now been going on for more than two decades, and its impact on our railways has been devastating. Between 1995 and 2016, average rail fares increased by 23.5 percent, rising at twice the rate of earnings between 2009 and 2019. As a proportion of salaries, rail fares in the UK are five times as high as our European neighbours. And we’ve all experienced the delays, cancellations, and overcrowding that have plagued the rail network for years.

Grant Shapps’ rail white paper will tackle none of this. We’ll still be stuck with these unaffordable fares, unreliable services, and unpleasant journeys.

The failure to address these major problems is a damning indictment on the government’s ambition and vision for our transport system. As we emerge from the pandemic, and people begin to move across the country more and more, it also has the potential to spell disaster for the planet.

To tackle the climate emergency, we desperately need a transport policy that takes cars off the road and planes out of the sky. It’s clear we can’t do that with more of the same broken rail system.

Grant Shapps could have used this opportunity to really shake up the rail network. He could have used it to really tackle the crisis on our public transport. He could—and he should—have used it to bring the railway into public ownership, so that passengers are at the heart, rather than private profit.