Renationalising the railways is not the answer to the problems facing British railways
A frequent subject of debate in recent years is whether the railways should be renataionalised, a subject that is brought to the fore by the RMT’s Bob Crow whenever there is any hint of problem with our privatised railway. The “For” arguments tend to centre around there being too much waste in the private sector on things like shareholder divdends, that fares are too high and the idea amongst the Left that the State should own everything. For me there is absolutely no question of renationalising the railways. It would be the worst thing that anyone could possibly do. To understand why, we need to look at what actually happened under British Rail and see just how wasteful and incompetent they really were.
First and foremost is the decades of under-investment. When they were nationalised in 1948, the railways were knackered. They had been worn out by the War, but they were slowly recovering under the management of the Big Four railway companies; the Great Western, Southern, London, Midland and Scottish and the London North Eastern. When they were privatised again they were still knackered, because apart from a couple of big-ticket schemes (mainly electrification of the West and East coast main lines and the introduction of electronic signalling) BR had mostly limited its investment infrastructure to urgent repairs rather than actual improvements. The trains that were running in 1994 were old and worn out, and it had been almost three years since any new passenger trains had been ordered. Privatisation brought massive investment, and the reason we have so many new trains today is because of privatisation. The private sector knew immediately that it was unacceptable for cross country services to be run using 30 year old locomotives and carriages or for local services to be run using 40 year old diesel units, and they poured money into new trains – new trains that BR were not even considering introducing. The network also got a huge boost with modifications and investments, but not before there had been some serious high-profile crashes as a result of poor track and signalling. The blame for this can be shared between both BR (for not letting the infrastructure get so bad in the first place) and Railtrack, who put profits before safety. The failure of Railtrack is used by many to justify the renationalisation of the railways, but I disagree. Railtrack was indeed a case of privatisation gone wrong, but it was an anomaly caused by a failure to hold people accountable until it was too late. Arguably today with Network Rail we have gone too far the other way, as they haemorrage millions in compensation claims for infrastructure problems that are really force majeure.
Second of all, you have the waste under BR, and it was huge. During the late 40s and early 50s, BR decided to adopt a fleet of “Standard” steam locomotives to replace the old, disparate designs of the big four companies, the idea being that they would cut costs with common parts across the regions. There were ten locomotive classes in all, the 2MT (tank and tender), 3MT (tank and tender), 4MT (tank and tender), 5MT, the Class 6 ‘Clan’, the Class 7 ‘Britannia’ and the 9F. While BR were spending millions of pounds building these locos and rolling them out across the country they decided to adopt a modernisation plan, which involved replacing all the steam locomotives with diesel and electric traction at a cost of well over a billion pounds. BR now had two contradictory modernisation programmes, one involving the wholesale replacement of old steam locomotives with new steam locomotives and another involving the wholesale replacement of all steam locomotives with diesel and electric traction. Incredibly, rather than selecting one, BR pursued both largely for political reasons, which resulted in new steam locomotives being built even though they had already been declared obsolete and were to be withdrawn within ten years. The final steam locomotive built, Evening Star, was a 9F that entered service in 1960 and was withdrawn in 1965, and there were dozens of other locomotives with similarly short lives. Given that these locomotives were designed to stay in service for at least 30 years that’s a phenomenal waste of money. This whole saga gets even worse when you look at how much money BR wasted in their modernisation plan. Dozens different types of locomotives were ordered in what was called a “pilot scheme” to try them out and see how they worked, and huge numbers of these locos ended up on the scrap heap within a decade. There was little attempt standardisation, and locomotives were built that were completely incompatible with each other. Hundreds of locos were built and many of them were scrapped as “non-standard” (when BR hadn’t specified any standardisation) or due to unreliability. Below are just a few examples;
BTH Class 15 – 44 examples built between 1959 and 1961. All withdrawn by 1971 due to poor reliability.
North British Class 16 – 10 examples built in 1958. All withdrawn by 1969 due to poor reliability.
Clayton Class 17 – 117 examples built between 1962 and 1965. All withdrawn by 1971 due to poor reliability
North British Class 21 – 58 examples built between 1958 and 1960. All withdrawn by 1971 due to poor reliability.
Metro-Vick Class 28 – 20 examples built between 1958 and 1959. All withdrawn by 1969 due to poor reliability.
Eventually BR settled on a standard fleet of locomotives, which remained largely unchanged for almost thirty years. Indeed, when the railways were privatised in 1994 the same locomotives and carriages were in use on cross country expresses as in the mid-1960s.
Not everything that British Rail did was bad. Indeed, they were responsible for introducing the Intercity 125 (also known as the HST) that was the fastest diesel passenger train in the world and remains one of the finest and most comfortable trains in service today, thirty five years after it was introduced. BR also developed the Advanced Passenger Train (APT), which was the world’s first tilting train until BR scrapped it following a disastrous demonstration run that made the travelling journalists sick (although arguably the demonstration would have been more successful had BR not plied the journalists with free alcohol before putting them on the train).
Ultimately though, while BR did have some successes, its legacy was one of failure. The network that was privatised in 1994 was falling apart due to under-investment, and it was this under-investment, hampered by the failure of Railtrack to do anything about it, that led to such tragic disasters as the Hatfield crash. To go back to that era would be a mistake, not least because the State still hasn’t learned the lessons of its failure. The only main line built in the UK by the State is High Speed One, the business case for which was based on artificially-inflated forecasts of passenger numbers that proved to be hopelessly exaggerated. When the Government sold the operating rights to High Speed One they lost almost four billion pounds. High Speed Two, like BR’s modernisation plan, is being pursued against all logic for political reasons rather than sound business reasons. The cost has already increased by over 30% to £40 billion years before construction has even begun, and will increase even higher. Do we really want the same politicians that are responsible for those white elephants, the same politicians that fail to make a decision on airport capacity in a decade, to be running our railways?
Born in Yeovil, Bob Foster moved to the West Midlands, and following a brief spell in Dublin after university now lives in the North West. When pushed he describes himself as socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-military and anti-Government. His passions are American history, military history and defence policy, and when he doesn’t have his nose in a book on air power or a political memoir he can be found building model aircraft and warships. He works in the defence industry, but speaks for himself. He tweets as @Bobski1984