So you want to renationalise the railways? Just examine this track record first!

13 mins read

 RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch

RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch (Image: Getty)

Judging by social media, the siren call of complete state ownership is more and more alluring to younger Britons especially right now. And to be fair, in current circumstances, many people might reasonably think it has some appeal in a few settings: such as the woefully inefficient water companies. But railways? They are a different story altogether. Do people under 40 even know what happened the last time they were nationalised?

We are told with the passion, conviction and certainty of youth – but not necessarily wisdom – that renationalisation is the surest way to create a wisely-run, affordable, strike free and safe transport system. It’s not their fault they haven’t lived long enough to recall the abject failure and wanton waste nationalisation nearly always brought.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pledged in 2020 to bring rail, mail, water and energy back into common ownership – but says he now takes a “pragmatic approach”.

Earlier this summer, he suggested Labour would drop its pledge to renationalise the railways, despite repeated promises to do so. I don’t blame him.

Having studied the subject carefully for my new book, What’s Really Wrong With Our Railways?, the bitter lessons we oldies learned at such great cost really cannot be brushed under the carpet.

Industrially, just about everything major in Britain was nationalised in a socialist splurge after the war and up to the Sixties – steelmaking, coal mines, shipbuilding, British Leyland (cars), airlines and airports, telephones, railways, nuclear power, even road freight (most people forget that; it was called British Road Services).

Most of these were then destroyed in decades of incompetence, bureaucratic ineptitude, appalling decision-making and frequent strikes.

Look where we are today: Nuclear – from world leaders to begging the French and Chinese to build us reactors. Shipbuilding – biggest in the world to insignificant.

Pickets at Paddington for the rail drivers’ strike in 1979.

Pickets at Paddington for the rail drivers’ strike in 1979. (Image: GETTY)

Aircraft building – world leaders (the first jetliner) to building bits for European planes. Coal – gone. Train building, too – we exported all over the planet. Now we are delighted if the French, the Japanese or Spanish open a factory here and show us how to do it.

But what about railways? We led the world there too, but these were built by private enterprise taking risks on investors’ money, and spread rapidly all over Britain in the 19th century while the competition was merely the horse and cart.

With motor transport and faster roads in the 20th century, things became more difficult, and this eventually led to the 1948 nationalisation.

The decision-making then became disastrous. As the rest of Europe was going for cleaner diesel and electric locomotives, British Railways ordered vast fleets of new steam engines, despite their huge inefficiency (just seven per cent of the power turns into motion), partly because the Labour Party was financially backed by the miners’ union.

When the blunder became apparent, these locos were scrapped long before their time, and various diesel designs rushed through, many turning out to be unreliable.

Another state decision was to build huge marshalling yards to better sort out wagonload freight.

These huge facilities, sometimes a mile or two long and half-a-mile wide, were finished just in time for wagon-load freight to be dropped, partly because rail strikes had forced customers to buy lorries.

Only whole trains would be taken in future. The gigantic investment was wasted. But the real daftness of the decision-making is apparent from the huge rail infrastructure building projects of our own times.

If you read the history you will see that we had done them all before and then, in those nationalised years, destroyed them.

East-West line from Oxford to Cambridge? There was massive investment in the old Varsity Line, with a new concrete flyover at Bletchley and state-of-the art signalling in 1962, then it was closed five years later. Now it’s being rebuilt, but guess what? That disused flyover at Bletchley had to be replaced.

Crossrail, getting commuters from Berkshire all the way into the City of London on the same train? Brunel did it with GWR trains reaching the financial hub via the Underground. True, Crossrail’s new stations are impressive, but not so much needed now the City is largely working from home.

And not quite so impressive, however, when you realise that Crossrail went £3-4billion over budget and was more than three years late. Yes, the pandemic didn’t help, but once they got a grip, it didn’t make that much difference, and it was going wrong way before Covid struck.

There was no good reason for some of the delays – just the feeling that the cheque was blank and the timescale was, well, stretchy. It didn’t matter how good or bad the leadership was, the managers would get their six-figure salaries for years.

You could appoint more people to the team and still not achieve targets. If there is any incentive in such state-financed settings, it is to lengthen the process and hire more people.

Rail workers on strike 2022

Rail workers on strike 2022 (Image: GETTY)

And as for HS2? The visionary Edward Watkin built a whole new high-speed line to Manchester at the end of the 19th century, the Great Central, out of London Marylebone, even having the foresight to make it to European loading gauge (that is the bigger size of wagons and carriages, not the tracks) so there could be unhindered flow from the Channel Tunnel he eagerly foresaw (and started to build).

Then his route was destroyed by British Railways (a shame because, unlike HS2, it actually went into the centres of many of the cities it served).

The loss of the Great Central was part of a massacre of lines, many useful and much-missed, that underscored British Railway’s failure. Meanwhile, HS3 – the route welding together the north of England – is another re-linking.

We first paid for a new Sheffield to Manchester route after the war, all electrified, with a modern concrete Woodhead tunnel through the Pennines, including new locomotives, then scrapped it. The locos were fine – Dutch railways gleefully snapped them up and used them for decades afterwards.

As for safety, well under the nationalised British Railways (later called British Rail) people died wholesale – 714 passengers were killed in train accidents from 1948-’94.

Sometimes the sheer number of dead in each disaster was appalling – 112 in October 1952 at Harrow & Wealdstone, 49 at Hither Green in 1967, 90 at Lewisham in 1957, 35 at Clapham Junction in 1988.

The numbers injured were well into the thousands – 484 at just that one Clapham crash, for example.

The currently fashionable claim, by the way, that a “vertically integrated” railway (one outfit owning the trains, tracks, and operating everything) will avoid all crashes is punctured somewhat by that appalling record. That was a vertically integrated railway, and yet 714 people died.

Things had got a lot better by the end of BR’s time, however, and also more recently, under Network Rail (the current nationalised owner of the infrastructure only), to their credit. It is the culture of professionalism, safety and responsibility that matters, however, not the ownership structure.

Airliners by comparison are staggeringly safe per mile – but one firm owns the plane, perhaps another one operates it, another one runs the airport and yet another does maintenance. The culture takes safety seriously, however.

Scotrail is leading the way in rail nationalisation, to the delight of socialists north and south of the border. People expected something like Swiss Railways after full nationalisation on April 1, 2022.

In fact what they got was Rail Sturgeon: more strikes, services cut so much that even the unions complained, a high-handed, arrogant refusal to accommodate people with extra trains at football, music or golf fixtures. One hopes this may improve over time.

But for that, Scottish governance would need to improve.

Nationalism usually leads to more strikes, and Scotland is indeed leading the way and the rest of Britain following – with Boris Johnson’s rather vague Great British Railways concept (no one knows how nationalised that will be) supposed to start next year.

As Crossrail and HS2 have proved, state control means open chequebooks, more delays, hundreds of highly-paid managers and woeful waste.

How on earth HS2 has managed to spend a reported £14billion without building hardly an inch of track leaves me baffled.

So I’m sorry to rain on your parade. The track record shows very clearly that nationalisation doesn’t lead to fewer strikes, it leads to more.

It doesn’t lead to better decision-making, but worse. It doesn’t save money, it wastes it.

In the end it leads to fewer jobs, not more. It doesn’t save industries, it destroys them.

  • Benedict leVay is the author ofWhat’s Really WrongWith Our Railways? (Amazon, £9.80) and Britain From The Rails: A Window Gazer’s Guide (Bradt, £16.99)

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