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According to a recent analysis, taxpayers could save roughly £1 billion a year if the national rail network was returned to public hands. B&E takes a peek.

The UK’s privatised railway is failing society, the economy and the environment, with taxpayers’ money pouring into the wallets of private stockholders while passengers cope with a fragmented, overpriced and ineffective system.

Restoring public ownership of the network is recommended in a recent report.

The UK’s train infrastructure, according to the think tank Transport for Quality of Life, is in such a sorry state that other countries are “shocked.” Furthermore, the use of franchises to operate services means that subsidiaries of German, French and Dutch state railways are reaping profits here that are used to keep fares down back home.

As a result of a lack of a “guiding mind” that plans the entire system, the UK’s rail manufacturing sector has been destroyed since privatisation.

The cost of rail travel in the United Kingdom has risen from £2.4 billion before privatisation (1990-91 to 1994-95) to about £5.4 billion between 2005-06 and 2009-10, while Britons still pay the highest day return and season ticket costs in Europe.

The report says the main drivers of these increased costs include: higher interest payments in order to keep Network Rail’s debts off the Government balance sheet; debt write-offs; costs arising from the fragmentation of the system into many private organisations; profits for complicated tiers of contractors and sub-contractors; and dividends for private investors.

Taken total, these have cost the public about £11bn since privatisation – or £1.2bn a year – although the thinktank believes this is a “minimum figure” as it only covers the expenditures that can be clearly quantifiable.

According to the authors of the research, the issues plaguing the UK’s rail system are now widely acknowledged.

“There is a widespread concern – shared across the political spectrum – that we are not getting good value from the substantial sums of public money that are invested in the railways every year,” it says.

So what is the answer?

Transport for Quality of Life says common reason and railway experience have been abandoned for a “misguided” mentality of private-must-be-best.

According to the company’s strategy, regional and local authorities would join forces with customers and employees to run local transit systems.

This is standard practise throughout Europe, according to the research, where municipal and regional governments are heavily involved with rail service provision.

“Although there is a wide range of models for interactions between unified national passenger train operators and municipal or regionalauthorities, every other European country appears to have more devolution of control for local services than the UK.”

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The think tank did point out, however, that county or unitary councils hold the highest level of jurisdiction in England when it comes to transportation matters, and these governments are too small to specify local train services.

They propose a “regional transport executive” who would be accountable to a coalition of local governments.

In the north of England (including the ITAs responsible for Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Tyne and Wear as well as local authorities such as Cumbria and Lancashire), the southwest of England, or the Midlands, a regional transport executive can be in charge of transportation.

But the research cautions that the reform of the railroads should not become “mired in the broader politically fraught debate about regional devolution”.

The analysis says that if all the “unnecessary costs” originating from privatisation were abolished and the ensuing savings were funnelled into decreasing tickets, travellers might expect ticket rates to plummet by 18 per cent across the board.

This may be music to the ears of long-suffering commuters – but will the report get political support?

Well, the Government’s own McNulty Review, which was published last year, includes similar proposals for devolution of responsibility over train services to passenger transport executives and local authorities.

Nevertheless, the majority of experts agree that the Conservative-led Coalition’s chances of enacting the drastic renationalization proposal outlined in the union-funded paper are minimal at best.

Still, the report has received a warm welcome from the opposition, with Labour’s shadow transport spokesperson Maria Eagle calling it a “coherent case for reform”. As part of its policy review, the party might implement the recommendations in order to win over disgruntled commuters across the country.

Of course, the question of whether the network should be renationalised is very different from whether town councils genuinely have the capacity to administer local services.

The report itself concedes that county councils are too tiny to efficiently monitor the system and that suitable regional authorities do not exist over much of England.

The practicalities of implementing the report’s recommendations mean that in the current atmosphere, the plans may struggle to acquire traction. Local authorities are also facing significant job losses and years of budget cuts.

Last Updated on December 29, 2021

Indra-Gupta

Author: Indra Gupta

Indra is an in-house writer with a love of Newcastle United and all things sustainable.

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