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?
Over the past few decades, numerous areas within the British economy have been partly or fully privatized and one such case is British Rail. Why is this relevant now? We’re once again looking at the potential increase in rail fares across the country and the impact this will have on commuters and households. So, have the promises of privatisation – namely lower fares – actually materialised?
Comparing the increase in rail fares with that of the RPI makes for interesting reading. Data obtained back in January 2013 shows that since 1995, when the last set of British Rail fares were published, the RPI has been 66%, according to data from Barry Doe and this compares unfavourably with the increase in a single ticket from London to Manchester which had increased by over 200%. However, it compares favourably with a season ticket, which had only increased by 65%. In the last couple of years, increased in rail fares have been capped by the government to increase by no more than the rate of inflation. As such, customers are likely to be somewhat insulated from the increases that were expected, which could have ranged between 3 and 5%.
This announcement has been met with mixed reviews, with many in support of such caps and the benefit this will bring to working households, including Passenger Focus, the rail customer watchdog. Its Passenger Director, David Sidebottom said:
The capping of rail fare rises by inflation will be welcome news to passengers in England, especially those who rely on the train for work, as will the ban on train companies increasing some fares by more than the average. It is something we have been pushing for, for several years now and we are pleased that the Government has recognised the need to act to relieve the burden on passengers.
However, others have criticised the increases in rail fares, given the cost of living crisis and the potential 9% pay rise for MPs. The acting General Secretary of the RMT transport union commented:
The announcement from George Osborne does not stack up to a freeze for millions of people whose incomes are stagnant due to years of austerity. To try and dress this up as benefiting working people is pure fraud on the part of the Government … Tomorrow, RMT will be out at stations across the north where some off-peak fares will double overnight.
Commuters in different parts of the country do face different prices and with some changes in peak travel times in the Northern part of the country, it is expected that some customers will see significant hikes in prices. Peak travel prices being higher is no surprise and there are justifiable reasons for this, but would such changes in peak times in the North have occurred had we still been under British Rail? Privatisation should bring more competition, lower prices and government revenue at the point of sale. Perhaps you might want to look in more detail at the actual to see whether or not you think the benefits of privatisation have actually emerged. The following articles consider the latest announcement regarding rail fares.
Rail fares to increase by 2.5% in January after Osborne caps price rises at no more than inflation Mail Online, Tom McTague (7/9/14)
Have train fares gone up or down since British Rail? BBC News, Tom Castella (22/1/13)
Rail fares to match inflation rate for another 12 months The Guardian (7/9/14)
Britain caps rail fares at inflation Reuters (7/9/14)
Regulated rail fares to increase by 3.5% in 2015 BBC News (19/8/14)
Northern commuters face big rise in fares for evening travel The Guardian, Gwyn Topham (7/9/14)
Commuter rail fares frozen again, says George Osborne BBC News (7/8/14)
Rail fares, the third payroll tax Financial Times, Jonathan Eley (22/8/14)
- What are the general advantages and disadvantages of privatisation, whether it is of British Rail or British Gas?
- Why is it that season tickets have increased by less than the RPI, but single tickets have increased by more?
- What are the conditions needed to allow train companies to charge a higher price at peak travel times?
- Are higher prices at peak times an example of price discrimination? Explain why or why not.
- In the Financial Times article, it is suggested that rail fares are like a payroll tax. What is a payroll tax and why are rail fares related to this? Does it suggest that the current method of setting rail fares is equitable?
- Based on the arguments contained in the articles, do you think the cap on rail fares is sufficient?
Calls for an independent Scotland have focused on a variety of economic issues. These have included taxation, government spending, currency, fiscal policy and monetary policy. However, the BBC News article below looks at another factor which may be affected by a ‘yes’ vote – the price of stamps.
Having just returned from 10 days in the Highlands, I certainly agree with the BBC article that it would be an expensive business to deliver to the remotest parts of Scotland and would definitely require ‘trains, planes, ferries, Land Rovers and vans’ and, in an extreme case, a fishing boat.
So is the price we pay for postage to less rural areas of the UK used to subsidise the higher costs of delivery to the remotest parts of Scotland and, in particular, to the small islands off the Scottish coastline? What would a ‘yes’ vote mean for the cost of stamps in Scotland and in the remainder of the UK? The following articles consider this rather odd question.
Why postage should be cheaper in UK if Scots vote ‘Yes’ BBC News, Brian Milligan (19/4/14)
Tories warn over post service costs The Courier (6/4/14)
- What happened when the Royal Mail was privatised?
- What are the benefits and costs of privatisation?
- Using a cost and revenue diagram, explain how the different costs of delivery between urban parts of the UK and the remotest parts of Scotland should be reflected in different prices of postage.
- If the price of postage is the same for delivery everywhere in the UK, use your diagram to explain how this happens.
- What does your diagram suggest will happen to the price of postage stamps if a ‘subsidy’ is no longer available?
Much has been written on Margaret Thatcher following her death at the age of 87 on April 8. But getting a calm assessment of both her time in office and her legacy is not easy. And it’s clear why: she created both stronger loyalty and stronger opposition than any other UK Prime Minister.
As economists, however, we should try to be as dispassionate as possible in assessing the effects of policies. There is always a normative question of the relative desirability of different economic outcomes – and you will have your own views on the relative importance of objectives such as economic growth, greater equality and greater social cohesion – but to determine cause and effect, or at least correlation, requires a careful examination of the evidence. Also, drawing lessons for future policy requires a careful modelling of the economy and the effects of changing economic variables.
The following articles have been selected from the hundreds that have appeared in the press in the past few days. Whilst they cannot be claimed to be totally ‘objective’, taken together they give a good overview of her economic policies and her economic legacy.
You may well have been surprised by the amount of coverage of her death and at the fervour of her supporters and critics. But this bears witness to the huge effect she had on both the political scene and on the UK economy – for good or bad.
Margaret Thatcher’s timeline: From Grantham to the House of Lords, via Arthur Scargill and the Falklands War Independent (8/4/13)
Overhauls Are Still Felt, Debated Decades Later Wall Street Journal, Charles Forelle (9/4/13)
Margaret Thatcher’s Four Ages of Monetary Policy EconoMonitor, David Smith (10/4/13)
How Mrs Thatcher smashed the Keynesian consensus The Economist (9/4/13)
Margaret Thatcher: The economy now and then BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (10/4/13)
Did Margaret Thatcher transform Britain’s economy for better or worse? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (8/4/13)
A look back at Margaret Thatcher’s economic record Washington Post, Dylan Matthews (8/4/13)
Margaret Thatcher’s legacy for business and economics—the world weighs in Quartz, Gwynn Guilford (8/4/13)
Economic Data freely available online The Economics Network, see especially sites 1, 2, 3, 6 and 9
- Summarise the macroeconomic policies followed by the Thatcher government from 1979 to 1990.
- Chart economic growth, unemployment and inflation over Margaret Thatcher’s time in office. How does the performance of each of these indicators compare with the period from 1990 to 2007 and from 2008 to the present day?
- What is meant by ‘monetarism’? Did the Thatcher government follow pure monetarist policies?
- What is meant by the ‘Big Bang’ as applied to the financial sector in 1986? Assess the long-term consequences of the Big Bang.
- What elements of ‘Thatcherism’ were retained by the Labour government from 1997 to 2010?
- To what extent can the current Coalition government be described as ‘Thatcherite’?