The UK rail industry was privatised by the Conservative government in the mid-1990s. As Case Study 14.8 on the Economics 10th edition website states:
The management of rail infrastructure, such as track, signalling and stations, was to be separated from the responsibility for running trains. There would be 25 passenger train operating companies (TOCs), each having a franchise lasting between seven and fifteen years. These companies would have few assets, being forced to rent track and lease stations from the infrastructure owner (Railtrack), and to lease trains and rolling stock from three new rolling-stock companies. …In practice, the 25 franchises were operated by just 11 companies (with one, National Express, having nine of the franchises).
In 1996, at the start of the franchise era, the train operating companies were largely private-sector companies such as National Express, Stagecoach, Virgin Rail and Prism Rail. By 2020, most of the franchises were operated by a foreign state-owned business or a joint venture with a foreign state-owned firm.
As a result of poor performance (see above case study), Railtrack was effectively renationalised in 2002 as Network Rail – a not-for-profit company, wholly dependent upon the UK Treasury for any shortfall in its funds.
TOCs had mixed success. Some performed so poorly that their franchise contracts had to be temporarily taken over by a state-owned operator. For example, in June 2003 the Strategic Rail Authority withdrew the operating licence of the French company Connex South Eastern. The franchise was temporarily taken over by the publicly-owned South Eastern Trains from November 2003 until March 2006 before being returned to a private operator.
Perhaps the most troubled franchise has been the East Coast Main Line between London and Scotland. It was renationalised in 2009, reprivatised in 2015 and renationalised in 2018.
The effect of the coronavirus pandemic
The spread of the coronavirus and the accompanying lockdowns and social distancing saw a plummeting of rail travel. Passenger numbers fell to just 10% of pre-pandemic levels. In March 2020, the UK Government introduced Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs), which temporarily replaced rail franchise agreements. TOCs were paid a 2% fee (based on pre-Covid costs) to run trains and losses were borne by the government.
When the EMAs ran out on the 20 September, they were replaced by Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs), set to last until no later than April 2022. Under these measures, the fees paid to TOCs were reduced to a maximum of 1.5%. These consist partly of a fixed fee (again based on pre-Covid costs) and partly on a performance payment, depending on punctuality, passenger satisfaction and financial performance. As with the EMAs, the new arrangements involve virtually no risk for the TOCs (except for the size of the performance-related fee). Costs and revenue will be passed to the Department for Transport, which will bear any losses.
TOCs were required to run a virtually full service to allow reduced passenger numbers to observe social distancing. Despite journeys still being only 30% of pre-pandemic levels, social distancing on trains meant that many trains were sold out.
The ERMAs also contain provisions for the replacement of franchises when they come to an end. The precise nature of these will be spelt out in a White Paper, which will respond to the recommendations of the Williams Review of the railways. This review was set up in 2018 in the aftermath of difficulties with various franchises and a chaotic nationwide timetable change. The review’s findings were originally scheduled to be published in Autumn 2019, but were then put back because of the general election and the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The government hopes that it will be published before the end of 2020.
It is expected that the review will recommend replacing the franchise system with something similar to the currents ERMAs. TOCs awarded a contract will be paid a performance-related fee and revenues will go to the government, which will bear the costs. While this is not quite renationalisation, it is not the previous franchise system where TOCs bore the risks. It is in effect a contract system where private companies are paid to deliver a public service.
The CrossCountry franchise
The first test of this new approach to contracting with TOCs came this month. Arriva’s franchise for running CrossCountry trains ran out and was replaced by a three-year contract to run the services, which span much of the length of Great Britain from Aberdeen to Penzance via Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol and Plymouth; from Bournemouth to Manchester via Reading, Oxford, Wolverhampton and Stoke; from Cardiff to Nottingham via Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby; and from Birmingham to Stanstead Airport via Leicester and Cambridge.
The contract will last three years. The Department for Transport will gain the revenues and cover the costs and pay Arriva (owned by Deutsche Bahn) a management fee that is ‘performance related’ – as yet unspecified. This, like the EMAs and then the ERMAs, will remove the risks from Arriva.
Nationalisation in Wales
The Welsh government has announced that Transport for Wales will be taken over by a publicly owned company in February 2021. TfW operates many of the routes in Wales and the borders and most of the branch lines in Wales, including the valley commuter lines into Cardiff. It is currently owned by KeolisAmey (a joint company owned 70% by the French company, Keolis (part of SNCF), and 30% by the UK company, Amey), which took over the franchise in 2018 from Arriva. The Welsh government considered that KeolisAmey would collapse if it did not provide support. Ministers decided that nationalisation would give it greater control than simply subsidising KeolisAmey.
James Price, chief executive of the Welsh Government, stated that this allows it:
to reduce the profit we pay to the private sector massively over time, and make sure that when the revenue comes back, it comes back in to the taxpayer.
Under emergency measures, KeolisAmey has already been supported by the Welsh government to the tune of £105 million (£40 million in March and £65 million in June) to continue operating the franchise. Passenger numbers fell by 95% as the pandemic hit.
Is nationalisation a better way forward, or should private train operating companies continue with the government taking on the risks, or should the franchise system be amended with greater support from the government but with the TOCs still bearing risk? The articles below consider these issues.
- Rail nationalisations may be coming down the track
BBC News, Tom Burridge (17/9/20)
- ONS recognises full nationalisation of the UK railways
Financial Times, Tanya Powley (31/7/20)
- Train services are very efficient for shareholders – less so for customers
The Conversation, Daniel Fisher (22/8/19)
- UK government on standby to nationalise more rail lines
Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Philip Georgiadis (17/9/20)
- British Government Ends Rail Franchising
Railway-News, Josephine Cordero Sapién (21/9/20)
- British government announces end for rail franchise system
Trains, Keith Fender (12/10/20)
- Monday essay: A new era?
Railnews, Sim Harris (19/10/20)
- Arriva secures three-year CrossCountry contract
International railway Journal Kevin Smith (16/10/20)
- New contract signed for Arriva CrossCountry
RTM, Ailsa Cowen (16/10/20)
- Franchising is Dead
Railway-News, Josephine Cordero Sapién and Gareth Davies (16/9/20)
- Transport for Wales rail services to be nationalised
BBC News (23/10/20)
- Transport for Wales to be nationalised
- Why has the Welsh Government nationalised rail’s Wales and Borders franchise?
BusinessLive, Sion Barry (22/10/20)
- Explain how the franchising system worked (prior to March 2020).
- To what extent could each franchise be described as a ‘contestable monopoly’?
- What incentives were built into the franchising system to deliver improvements in service for passengers?
- What were the weaknesses of the franchising system?
- In the context of post-pandemic rail services, compare the relative merits of nationalisation with those of awarding contracts where the government receives the revenues and bears the costs and pays train operating companies a fee for operating the services where the size of the fee is performance related.
- What are the arguments for subsidising rail transport? What should determine the size of the subsidy?
The linked articles below look at the state of the railways in Britain and whether renationalisation would be the best way of securing more investment, better services and lower fares.
Rail travel and rail freight involve significant positive externalities, as people and goods transported by rail reduce road congestion, accidents and traffic pollution. In a purely private rail system with no government support, these externalities would not be taken into account and there would be a socially sub-optimal use of the railways. If all government support for the railways were withdrawn, this would almost certainly result in rail closures, as was the case in the 1960s, following the publication of the Beeching Report in 1963.
Also the returns on rail investment are generally long term. Such investment may not, therefore, be attractive to private rail operators seeking shorter-term returns.
These are strong arguments for government intervention to support the railways. But there is considerable disagreement over the best means of doing so.
One option is full nationalisation. This would include both the infrastructure (track, signalling, stations, bridges, tunnels and marshalling yards) and the trains (the trains themselves – both passenger and freight – and their operation).
At present, the infrastructure (except for most stations) is owned, operated, developed and maintained by Network Rail, which is a non-departmental public company (NDPB) or ‘Quango’ (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, such as NHS trusts, the Forestry Commission or the Office for Students. It has no shareholders and reinvests its profits in the rail infrastructure. Like other NDPBs, it has an arm’s-length relationship with the government. Network Rail is answerable to the government via the Department for Transport. This part of the system, therefore, is nationalised – if the term ‘nationalised organisations’ includes NDPBs and not just full public corporations such as the BBC, the Bank of England and Post Office Ltd.
Train operating companies, however, except in Northern Ireland, are privately owned under a franchise system, with each franchise covering specific routes. Each of the 17 passenger franchises is awarded under a competitive tendering system for a specific period of time, typically seven years, but with some for longer. Some companies operate more than one franchise.
Companies awarded a profitable franchise are required to pay the government for operating it. Companies awarded a loss-making franchise are given subsidies by the government to operate it. In awarding franchises, the government looks at the level of payments the bidders are offering or the subsidies they are requiring.
But this system has come in for increasing criticism, with rising real fares, overcrowding on many trains and poor service quality. The Labour Party is committed to taking franchises into public ownership as they come up for renewal. Indeed, there is considerable public support for nationalising the train operating companies.
The main issue is which system would best address the issues of externalities, efficiency, quality of service, fares and investment. Ultimately it depends on the will of the government. Under either system the government plays a major part in determining the level of financial support, operating criteria and the level of investment. For this reason, many argue that the system of ownership is less important than the level and type of support given by the government and how it requires the railways to be run.
The case for re-nationalising Britain’s railways The Conversation, Nicole Badstuber (27/8/15)
Lessons from the Beeching cuts in reviving Britain’s railwa The Conversataion, Andrew Edwards (7/12/17)
Britain’s railways were nationalised 70 years ago – let’s not do it again The Conversation, Jonathan Cowie (1/1/18)
FactCheck Q&A: Should we nationalise the railways? Channel 4 News, Martin Williiams (18/5/17)
Britain’s railways need careful expansion, not nationalisation Financial Times, Julian Glover (5/1/18)
Right or wrong, Labour is offering a solution to the legitimacy crisis of our privatised railways Independent. Ben Chu (2/1/18)
Whether or not nationalisation is the answer, there are serious questions about the health of Britain’s railways Independent. Editorial (2/1/18)
Why Nationalising The Railways Is The Biggest Misdirect In Politics Huffington Post, Chris Whiting (5/1/18)
- What categories of market failure would exist in a purely private rail system with no government intervention?
- What types of savings could be made by nationalising train operating companies?
- The franchise system is one of contestable monopolies. In what ways are they contestable and what benefits does the system bring? Are there any costs from the contestable nature of the system?
- Is it feasible to have franchises that allow more than one train operator to run on most routes, thereby providing some degree of continuing competition?
- How are rail fares determined in Britain?
- Would nationalising the train operating companies be costly to the taxpayer? Explain.
- What determines the optimal length of a franchise under the current system?
- What role does leasing play in investment in rolling stock?
- What are the arguments for and against the government’s decision in November 2017 to allow the Virgin/Stagecoach partnership to pull out of the East Coast franchise three years early because it found the agreed payments to the government too onerous?
- Could the current system be amended in any way to meet the criticisms that it does not adequately take into account the positive externalities of rail transport and the need for substantial investment, while also encouraging excessive risk taking by bidding companies at the tendering stage?
Virgin’s franchise to run the West Coast Main Line from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh was due to expire in December. The Department of Transport thus invited tenders to run a new 13-year franchise, worth around £5 billion, and on 15 August announced that the franchise had been awarded to FirstGroup. It had bid substantially more than Virgin.
Virgin immediately challenged the decision, arguing that FirstGroup’s figures were flawed. According to the second BBC article below:
It argued that FirstGroup’s revenue projections were wildly optimistic – that passenger growth of 6% a year was unlikely given that Virgin had seen growth of 5% a year from a much lower base. This level of passenger growth would have seen FirstGroup’s revenue from the franchise grow by more than 10% a year, which was simply unrealistic, Virgin argued.
And it is not alone. “Everybody in the industry thought that this bid was not sustainable and that the risks had not been taken into account by the Department for Transport,” says rail industry expert Christian Wolmar.
If revenue targets are not met, the franchisee doesn’t have the money to pay the government the promised fee for the contract, which in FirstGroup’s case was back-loaded towards the end of the 13-year term.
After making its decision, the Transport Secretary at the time, Justine Greening, said that the process of assessing the bid was robust and fair and conducted with due diligence. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin strongly and publicly disagreed and Virgin decided to take the Department of Transport to court. The court case was scheduled to begin on 4 October.
However, in preparing its case to put to the court, the Department of Transport uncovered significant errors in the evaluation of the bids. These errors involved the overestimation of passenger numbers, the undervaluation of risk and a failure to take inflation into account. The errors stemmed from inputting the data incorrectly.
The errors were so serious that the new Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, on the day before the court case was due to begin, announced that he was scrapping the contract to FirstGroup and would invite new bids. All four of the original bidders would have their costs refunded, amounting to some £40 million.
The minister also announced that he was setting up two reviews. One would seek to establish just what went wrong in the assessment of the West Coat Main Line bids and what lessons could be learned. This is due to report at the end of October. The other review would examine the wider rail franchise programme and how bids are appraised. In the meantime, three other franchise competitions had been ‘paused’ pending the results of this second review, due to report in December.
The articles look at the problems of assessing bids and properly taking into account risks associated with both revenue and cost projections. Not surprisingly, they also look at the politics of this amazing and unprecedented U-turn
Webcasts and podcasts
West Coast Main Line rail franchise deal scrapped BBC News, Richard Westcott (3/10/12)
West coast rail franchise deal scrapped Channel 4 News, Krishnan Guru-Murthy (3/10/12)
‘Major problem’ for West Coast Main Line BBC Today Programme, Louise Ellman (3/10/12)
Philip Hammond on West Coast Main Line contract BBC News, Andrew Neil (7/10/12)
Virgin to run West Coast route ‘for at least nine months’ BBC News, Richard Westcott (15/10/12)
British transport secretary cancels West Coast franchise International Railway Journal, David Briginshaw (3/10/12)
Wrong track: Another humiliation for the government The Economist (5/10/12)
West Coast Main Line: total chaos as government scraps franchise deal The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (3/10/12)
West Coast Main Line deal scrapped after contract flaws discovered BBC News (3/10/12)
Q&A: West Coast Main Line franchise BBC News (4/10/12)
What derailed the Transport Department BBC News, Robert Peston (3/10/12)
Transport official suspended over rail fiasco is ex-Goldman banker Independent, Oliver Wright and Cahal Milmo (5/10/12)
West Coast Main Line: Civil servant Kate Mingay speaks out BBC News (6/10/12)
Civil servant: I wasn’t to blame over West Coast bid The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (5/10/12)
West coast rail fiasco: three government officials suspended Guardian, Gwyn Topham (3/10/12)
What does west coast shambles mean for big rail franchises? Guardian, Dan Milmo (3/10/12)
West coast mainline fiasco may claim further victims Guardian, Gwyn Topham and Dan Milmo (4/10/12)
The West Coast mainline, wasted taxes, and a secretive shambles at the heart of the Civil Service Independent, Steve Richards (4/10/12)
Why all the West Coast bids were wrong BBC News, Robert Peston (9/10/12)
- What were reasons for awarding the contract to FirstGroup back in August?
- How is discounting used to assess the value of projected future revenue and costs? How does the choice of the rate of discount impact on these calculations?
- In what way should risk be taken into account?
- Why was the FirstGroup bid particularly sensitive to the calculation of risk?
- If both costs and revenues go up with inflation, how is inflation relevant to the calculation of the profitability of a bid?
- What are the arguments for and against making franchises longer?
- Is it only at the bidding stage that there is any competition for train operators? Explain.
- Should full social costs and benefits be taken into account when assessing bids for a rail franchise? Explain.
The east coast mainline from London to Edinburgh is a ‘premium route’. This means that it is one of the lines in the UK that is profitable. When the franchises come up for renewal on such lines, potential operators bid to pay the government for the franchise. National Express won the eight-year franchise in 2007 for a total of £1.4 billion, paid in annual rising instalments.
Although the east coast mainline is still profitable, the recession has meant that passenger numbers have been insufficient for National Express to make its annual payments to the Department for Transport and still be left with a profit. As a result, the government will take the franchise into public ownership later this year. This specially created nationalised company will then operate trains on the route until a new franchise is awarded to a private company at the end of 2010.
So why has this proved necessary? Is it all down do the depth of the recession? Or was the £1.4 billion cost of the franchise unrealistically expensive? Would the answer be for National Express to merge with another operator, such as the First Group? Or should the government be prepared to waive, or at least reduce, the franchise payments until passenger numbers are growing fast enough? Or is it time to rethink the whole UK model of rail privatisation and perhaps return to a nationalised rail system? The articles below consider the issues.
National Express loses East Coast line Independent (2/7/09)
National Express goes off the rails on east coast line Times Online (4/7/09)
Q&A: the future of National Express and the east coast mainline rail service Guardian (1/7/09)
East Coast main line: Q&A Telegraph (2/7/09)
Runaway train: The crisis in the rail sector Scotsman (5/7/09)
First Group sets sights on East Coast Business7 (3/7/09)
National Express’s decision to quit East Coast franchise is a lose-lose for nearly everyone Telegraph (4/7/09)
Focus turns to rail franchise system Financial Times (2/7/09)
Rail network: red signals ahead Guardian (2/7/09)
Have we reached the end of the line for privatisation? Observer (5/7/09)
Privatisation has been a train wreck: Ken Livingstone Guardian (2/7/09)
New Capitalism: Old Capitalism except taxpayer money is at risk: Iain Macwhirter Sunday Herald (5/7/09)
- Consider the relative merits of temporary nationalisation of the east coast mainline services with providing temporary support for National Express.
- Should profitable rail franchises be awarded to the highest bidder? Similarly, should loss-making franchises be awarded to companies bidding for the lowest subsidy?
- Discuss the arguments for and against a complete re-nationalisation of the railways.
- With reference to the final article above, explain what is meant by a Special Purpose Vehicle and whether it was an appropriate means for National Express to fund its £1.4 billion franchise. What dangers are associated with this and other new forms of ‘no-risk capitalism’? Is there a ‘moral hazard’ in this form of capitalism?
Passenger groups have reacted angrily to the raising of off-peak fares by South West Trains by around 20% on many journeys. The train company has increased unregulated fares significantly where there is little competition, but appears to have limited the increases on journeys where there is competition. Is this an abuse of their monopoly position?
Train firm accused of abusing monopoly Times Online (8/5/07)
Price hike angers train watchdog BBC News Online (8/5/07)
||Discuss the extent to which South West Trains has a monopoly on its rail journeys.
||Using diagrams as appropriate, show the reasons why South West Trains has chosen to increase off-peak prices by as much as 20%.
||Discuss the likely value of the price elasticity of demand for off-peak rail journeys. To what extent will this have influenced South West Trains’ pricing decision?