Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatised. This was done due to an ideological fervour sweeping through a few Tory MPs, not a desire to improve transportation. Reasons given for this were the stale sandwiches, lack of commercial flair and an ability of the private sector to encourage greater competition. But British Rail was not a primitive, poorly run system. After 50 years of existence, it had become an efficient operator with a good structure and performed with considerable commercial aptitude.
In 2018, on the other hand, staff shortages in Scotrail meant that an average of 46 services a day were cancelled towards the end of last year. As of February 2019, 1,000 Scotrail trains have been cancelled. This disruption has come as a result of staff training and an overtime ban implemented by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, in a bid to secure higher wages for staff working overtime. These cancellations bring into question whether privatisation is still a sensible move or whether it is now time to consider the renationalisation of the British transport system.
The cancellations in Scotrail are merely an example of the problems faced by the British railway. All you must do is go on to the BBC news website and type in ‘Railway’ to be bombarded with such articles. For example, Great Western Railways’ managing director Mark Hopwood has been accused of being ‘out of touch’ and ‘unwilling to get a grip on a litany of failures.’ The Welsh Government Transport Minister Ken Skates has said that the current rail funding system was ‘broken,’ as there is a South-East of England bias in the infrastructure model in use. Finally, with Scotrail, the new trains and train timetables were not a surprise event. Had Scotrail been better organised, the impact on staff and passengers would not have been anywhere near as great.
Opinion polls in 2017 showed that 76 per cent of the British public, across all generations, supported the re-nationalisation of the rail, alongside other big industries like water, gas and electricity. With the 2008 financial crisis still having an impact on the incomes of the British public, it does not seem surprising that fewer people are willing to appeal to the power of capitalism to help them. For example, the higher demand for railways has not led to lower prices as the private companies who own the trains prefer to increase their own profits rather than provide accessible transport for the UK.
So, what would it mean to renationalise the railways and trains? It would mean the government taking back control of the train operators and therefore being able to control ticket prices and train performance. The element of competitiveness that was given in the 1990s as a reason to privatise has not been proven to have any remarkable benefits for passengers. Having no choice over which train operator is used means that this competition is only evident in the initial fight to win franchises from the government. Critics of the train operators have argued that it is unfair for private investors to benefit from the unavoidable costs of commuter travel. FactCheck has suggested that together the 17 main train operators make an annual profit of £343 million.
If the trains were nationalised this annual profit could be used by the government to fund other areas, such as the National Health Service where budget cuts have meant that hospitals are unable to replace old equipment. Alternatively, more funding could be provided to the homeless crisis where in Scotland alone 14, 705 children were classified as homeless in 2017/2018 statistics. All this funding seems far more worthwhile than the income of businessmen.
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