Calls over the early May Bank Holiday weekend to nationalise Britain’s railways from a group of Labour candidates sounded alluring but I’m not convinced the figures behind their arguments stack up.
In a letter to the Observer, the group argues that the “hundreds of millions currently lost in private profit would be available to fully fund a bold offer on rail fares”. Recent ORR analysis shows a that the surplus between train operator income and spending is £172 million. That’s just 1.8% of total TOC income and 1.1% of the railway’s overall income. It could certainly be spent on something but it falls very short of being enough for a “bold offer” on a network with 1.6 billion passenger journeys last year.
One of signatories from Brighton told the paper: “Rail fares are a huge issue here and in other commuter areas”. Yet commuters pay some of the lowest fares available on a per journey basis and their fares are already controlled by government. Much of the taxpayer money being ploughed into railways is to ease commuter crowding, with longer platforms and work to increase route capacity for peak use, for example. ORR also reported that there was no overall subsidy for train operators.
Commuter operators have low levels of passenger complaints. ORR statistics show that per 100,000 passenger journeys in 2012/13, c2c generated 12 complaints, FCC generated 22, South West Trains 13, Southeastern 13 and Southern just five complaints.
At the other end of the scale is state-owned East Coast with 212 complaints. Yet East Coast is held as the exemplar of railway operation and the model for nationalisation. And while EC has ideas to improve services, such as extending more trains to Edinburgh, under government control it lacks sufficient trains to put the plan into action.
Elsewhere, government micromanagement saw TransPennine Express not allowed to procure sufficient vehicles, which has led to overcrowding. On Great Western, government foot-dragging means we’re no nearer to knowing exactly where the Thames Valley’s future electric trains will come from.
Are railways really best run from Whitehall? I don’t think so.