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 If all government support for the railways were withdrawn, this would almost certainly result in rail closures, as was the case in the 1960s, following the publication of the Beeching Report in 1963.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’?
The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the UK Treasury will face a shortfall of £13bn in motoring taxes within a decade. Although car usage continues to rise putting increasing pressure on the road infrastructure, the greener and more fuel efficient cars being produced are driving down the tax revenues generated from motoring.
A report by the IFS has put forward the case for replacing the existing system of taxes on cars and fuel by a new road charging system. If no such change occurs, the IFS has forecast that with more electric cars and hence lower revenues raised from fuel and vehicle excise duties, the shortfall facing the Treasury would require an increase in fuel duty of some 50%. Instead of this, the solution could be to charge individuals for every mile of road they use, with the ‘price’ varying depending on the degree of congestion. For example, at peak times the price would be higher, where as for those in the countryside where roads are traditionally much quieter, charges would be lower. The IFS said:
‘Such a move would generate substantial economic efficiency gains from reduced congestion, reduce the tax levied on the majority of miles driven, leave many (particularly rural) motorists better off, and provide a stable long-term footing for motoring taxes without necessarily raising net additional revenue from drivers.’
Government policy across the world has been increasingly focused on climate change, with targets for emissions reductions being somewhat ambitious. However, many car manufactures who were told to reduce emissions significantly are on the way to meeting these targets and this success is a key factor contributing towards this new road ‘crisis’ that could soon be facing the government. The following articles consider the possibility of a road charging scheme.
The road ahead for motoring taxes? Institute of Fiscal Studies (link to full report at the bottom of the page) (May 2012)
Compelling case for UK road charging, IFS study says BBC News (15/5/12)
Fears tax shortfall may lead to road tolls Sky News (15/5/12)
Who’s going to pay to update Britain’s infrastructure? Guardian Business Blog (15/5/12)
Motoring taxes: a future headache for the Chancellor Channel 4 News (15/5/12)
For whom the toll bills – less traffic hurts M6 toll road owner Guardian, Ian Griffiths and Dan Milmo (14/5/12)
Charge motorists per mile, says IFS Independent, Nigel Morris (15/5/12)
Green cars to drive down tax receipts Financial Times, Mark Odell and John Reed (15/5/12)
- Illustrate the effect of a tax being imposed on petrol. What happens to the equilibrium price and quantity?
- Despite fuel duty pushing up the price of petrol, why has there been such a small decline in the quantity of petrol individuals use?
- Evaluate the case for and against a road charging scheme.
- Why are tax revenues from motoring expected to decline over the next decade?
- Climate change has become an increasingly important focus of government policy. To what extent is the current road ‘crisis’ a positive sign that policies to tackle climate change are working?
- If a road charging scheme went ahead and prices were varied depending on traffic, time etc, what name would you give to this strategy?
- Why would it be possible to charge a higher price at peak times and a lower price for cars using country roads?
- Is there an argument for privatising the road network? Is it even possible?