West Coast Main Line row: should railways be renationalised?

In many ways the railways have been successful over the last fifteen years, with significant growth in passenger numbers and freight. Several routes have been upgraded, ageing trains have been replaced and safety has continued to improve.

Taxpayer subsidies have, however, reached unacceptable levels, at around £5 billion a year. And costs are much higher than on comparable networks abroad.

In reality, the railways were not privatised properly. Politicians and officials retained tight control. As the current West Coast debacle shows, the government decides who runs the trains. It also decides levels of service, controls prices and determines the priorities for investment.

This is not genuine privatisation. Rail firms are essentially subcontractors for the state. And the high costs of the railways flow directly from these high levels of government involvement.

In particular, the government has imposed a complex artificial structure on the industry. The railways are suffocated by unnecessary bureaucracy. Highly paid lawyers, accountants, consultants and civil servants have benefited at the expense of taxpayers and passengers.

A further shift toward nationalisation would only make this worse. Nationalised industries are hugely inefficient and quickly become a drain on the economy, as we know from bitter experience in the 1960s and 1970s. Politicians would exert even more control over the railways, squandering money to buy off special interests and wasting yet more billions on uneconomic vanity projects.

In the 19th century private firms built and operated a vast network without massive handouts from taxpayers. A similarly innovative and entrepreneurial private rail industry is the best way to improve outcomes and reduce costs. In particular, the same firms should be free to own the tracks and run the trains, as happened in the past. This is the best way of removing the political interference that is holding the industry back.

4 October 2012, BBC

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