Jeremy Corbyn has been upping his calls to renationalise the railways in the wake of the recent strikes at Southern rail. Today he is unveiling his leadership campaign, centred on bringing rail and bus services “back under public control”.
Rail renationalisation is an oddly popular concept among those unfamiliar with the workings and history of the rail industry. Andy Burnham unsurprisingly included it in his bid to become Labour leader last year, and with Corbyn’s position now looking increasingly unstable, it’s hardly a surprise that he’s taking the opportunity to come back to this commonly espoused idea.
The odd part of this is that the Southern strikes have created an excellent example of why privatisation can make dealing with situations like this much easier. Were this a nationalised railway, these strikes would be taking place across the country, and calls to ‘take away the franchise’ would be completely meaningless.
The franchising system certainly isn’t ideal, but it does allow for an underperforming operator to be removed. In a way this replaces the absent competition incentive that the overbearing government control of the system has prevented, but it does still mean that a constant possibility of change is present in the event an operator falls badly short.
Likewise, the Southern strike is limited to Southern’s network. Even the other parts of the same franchise, Thameslink and Great Northern, are unaffected by it. If this were a strike on a nationalised railway, the entire country would be disrupted.
Corbyn is making a promise to cut 10% off fares in his renationalisation project. However the fare increases over the past several decades have not been driven by the private profits he likes to link them to. The highest fares on the network are regulated season and peak time tickets. The cheapest fares, on the other hand, are the advance and single-route fares private operators have introduced in an effort to bring in profits they don’t have to share with other providers.
Yet again here the profit motive is being depicted as not in the public interest, whereas in fact the drive for profit is a clear motivator for higher standards of service and lower fares in a free economy. The problem on the railways is that a free economy simply doesn’t exist there. The system is still under complete “public control”.
One of the great successes of the privatised railway is the few ‘open access’ operators like Grand Central and Hull Trains that have been able to start new services to previously unserved destinations. Whether these would be allowed to survive on Corbyn’s renationalised network is unclear.
The idea that nationalisation would bring any improvement to services is fantasy. The motive of competition would be gone, the profit motive would be gone and all that would be left would be the will of whatever government was in power at the time. This is exactly the situation that lead to the catastrophic Beeching cuts of the 1960s, along with a modernisation program at the same time that wasted untold millions on redundant new locomotives and rolling stock and new steam locomotives that saw less than a decade of service.
Corbyn’s plans for allowing local authorities to bring bus routes back under their control and re-introduce municipal operators are similarly not in the passenger’s ultimate interest.
Fortunately Corbyn’s national standing is at an all time low, with opinion polls strongly favouring the new Conservative administration. If he wins the Labour leadership again, that should continue to improve the changes of a Conservative win in the next election, as Labour MPs are clearly all too aware.
The reason that it’s important to resist Corbyn’s railway rhetoric even despite the low chance of him ever getting into power is that it’s an idea that’s frighteningly popular in the public perception and even in some Conservative Party circles.
It’s a concept based wholly on ignorance and fantasy and it needs to be fought against by those of us who see a brighter future for rail transport under more private control, the kind of private control that hasn’t been seen since the 1920s.
If we want to create a “people’s railway” as Corbyn describes, the best way to do that is to let people run it, not government.