Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, is expected to announce rail renationalisation as party policy at the Labour Party Conference. This commitment has prompted accusations that Corbyn intends to “take us back to the 1970s”. However, polls consistently show around two thirds of the public support bringing the railways back into public ownership, with more than half of Tory voters in favour, and UKIP voters more likely than the rest of the population to support a nationalised service. The scale of popularity for such a measure suggests that there is widespread dissatisfaction with our railways. So perhaps Corbyn’s policy is not so backward looking as it is portrayed, but actually responds to contemporary concerns.
Despite a tripling of rail subsidies since privatisation, many prices have risen sharply. A single fare from London to Manchester increased by 208% from 1995 to 2013. In 2011, the McNulty report revealed that costs are about 40% higher on Britain’s railways than comparable European networks. A year later, a report by the think tank Just Economics condemned the UK’s rail system as less affordable, less comfortable, slower, more inefficient, and more expensive than France, Spain, Germany and Italy- all of whom have nationalised networks. The report also stated that the UK “spends a relatively large amount of money to achieve this woeful result”. In addition, the UK has an incredibly complex ticketing system. Taken together, these issues hardly suggest that our rail network is a success.
The problem with Britain’s railways is one of inefficiency. Ironically, the franchising system, where companies bid to operate lines, now exemplifies the qualities many proponents of the free market feel that state institutions possess. Bureaucratic inefficiency is abundant, with the whole system fragmented; the track owned by one body, then freight offered to other companies, offering licenses for rolling stock to others, and the passenger services to yet more. The failings of franchising have even resulted in government intervention, such as when they had to take East Coast into public hands in 2009. A publically owned railway, like Corbyn proposes, would provide the integration required to remedy these failings.
The nationalisation of East Coast mainline illuminates the success of public ownership. Between 2009 and 2015 it brought in over a billion to the exchequer, depended less on subsidies than any of the other 15 privately run franchises, experienced record passenger satisfaction, and decreased fares. Taking back the railways “line by line” means that the costs would be negligible, and we would be reimbursed with an integrated and more efficient system. Surely that is a progressive proposal?
Corbyn’s policy is no throwback to the past; it is a flash-forward to the future. It intends to go further than British Rail did; not simply creating a top-down colossus. Instead, it will focus on democratic ownership, with “passengers, rail workers and government too, co-operatively running the railways”. The aptly-named “People’s Railway” responds to the needs of the current generation by offering a more efficient service, run by an accountable public sector.