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 If all government support for the railways were withdrawn, this would almost certainly result in rail closures, as was the case in the 1960s, following the publication of the Beeching Report in 1963.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?