Forget the nostalgia for British Rail – our trains are better than ever

Published in The Guardian (August 16th, 2013)

There is a weary predictability to the political choreography. Once again, it’s revealed, commuter rail fares are rising above the rate of inflation, squeezing the cost of living still further for hard-pressed families. Ministers claim they checked bigger increases, the opposition pretends it would have done differently, passenger groups scream in pain, and the unions demand a return to state ownership.

This is one area where union conservatism strikes a chord with the British public, long sceptical over the supposed benefits of rail privatisation. Many regular users see it as little more than a modern-day train robbery, with fat cat bosses cramming passengers into carriages and creaming off vast profits from creaking services. Surveys show two-thirds of voters would happily see the railways renationalised, an idea being considered by Labour.

As so often, conventional wisdom is wrong. For all the defects of a rushed privatisation, rail has evolved into a privately-run public transport system playing a critical and successful role in the economy. The reality could hardly be more different to perception: passenger numbers booming, productivity rising, the number of services soaring, and customer satisfaction at near-record highs. Even those hated fare rises are not all they seem.

Modern vision is clouded by misty-eyed nostalgia for lovely old trains that once trundled around our tracks. As we hurtle along in slick modern trains with Wi-Fi and friendly service, it is easy to forget the poor punctuality and filthy carriages in the dismal days of British Rail. It was crippled by decades of under-investment, driving up fares and driving away freight – but even Margaret Thatcher saw the sale of the railways as a step too far. It was left to her successor, who forced it through too fast with civil servants told to privatise “as soon as practicable” and ensure the process was irreversible.

As one former rail boss said, the plan was half-hearted and half-baked; it was so unloved even Lord Whitelaw, Thatcher’s long-suffering deputy, opposed the idea. The result in political and financial terms was a disaster, symbolised by executives of three rolling-stock firms handed the most obscene profits on a plate. The architecture of privatisation was flawed – an attempt to impose models from other industries on a complex transport system – but the ambition to introduce competition and private capital was sound.

Two decades later, some – although far from all – of the kinks have been ironed out. There remain, for example, issues over inflated hidden subsidies handed to the train operating companies. And while public spending on the railways has soared, Network Rail remains wasteful and guilty of inadequate management yet its bosses take big bonuses. The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, should have slammed their greed rather than supported them  earlier this week.

But focus on the facts. When I travel from London to watch my football team, Everton, play at home, the average journey time to Liverpool is now 37 minutes quicker than when rail was privatised. This makes a difference on a trip that is now little more than two hours. There are also more options available for travel; on some major routes, more than twice as many trains are running. Britain has an additional 4,000 services a day, a rise of one-fifth that ensures the most frequent services among eight European nations tested by a consumer group. And we have the safest railways on the continent.

The ultimate test of any market is its popularity. Here again, rail can claim success despite intense competition from bus companies and budget airlines, which only took off in this country after rail privatisation. When the plan was first promoted, Britons took on average 11 train trips a year; now we take twice that number. Since the turn of the century freight traffic has risen substantially and passenger numbers have soared by 49% – far more than under those admired state-run services in France, Germany and the Netherlands. This means the level of subsidies per passenger has fallen while revenues to Whitehall have risen by more than £1bn.

Passengers grumble with justification over a maze-like ticketing system, yet these price variations have ensured rail companies can compete on longer journeys with rivals in the air and on the roads. So yes, the cost of some fares is now ridiculous; with travellers often stung by hideous sums for peak-time travel – but away from the headlines and cries of outrage, many fares and season tickets have fallen in real terms. One test on a price comparison website found journeys in Britain mostly cheaper than similar-length jaunts in France and Germany. Overall, the average price per passenger mile has risen only 4% in real terms over the past 15 years.

More investment, more competition and more pressure on the corporate fat cats are needed. But our focus should be on improved regulation, not a reversion to failed models; indeed, in many ways rail demonstrates the potential of a part-privatised public service at a time when such policies are causing concern in other sectors. Britain should, as with other national institutions, stop being dazzled by nostalgia, ignore the groans of vested interests and focus on keeping an unlikely success story on track.

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