Opponents of renationalising the railways can wheel out some impressive numbers to bolster their case. In the two decades since privatisation began, the number of rail passengers nationwide has more than doubled. London Waterloo alone will handle 100 million passengers this year, making it the busiest transport hub in Europe, well ahead of Heathrow.
Correlation does not signify causation, however. Proponents of renationalisation can point to the taxpayers’ billions pumped into projects such as the West Coast mainline refurbishment and Great Western electrification. Much-needed public investment to boost capacity and cut journey times has rewarded firms such as Virgin Trains.
Yet yearning for the golden, preprivatisation days of British Rail is misplaced, because the passenger experience was dire.
Successive governments had regarded the railways as an expensive nuisance. When spending cuts were needed, the trains could be squeezed until the rivets squeaked. Despite heroic efforts from frontline staff and managers, train journeys were expensive and unreliable.
Parts of the privatisation process were botched, but the sector arrived with ambition to revive an industry wearily accustomed to managing decline.
For the first time in living memory, the terms “new trains” and “cross-country routes” were used in the same sentence with Sir Richard Branson’s plans for better links connecting Newcastle with Plymouth and Manchester with Southampton.
Chiltern Railways put hundreds of millions into restoring the double tracks between London and Birmingham – but Chiltern is owned by Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s nationalised railway operator, and that highlights the weakness in present arrangements: rail franchise bids are welcome from public-sector firms, so long as they are foreign.
Directly Operated Railways, a Department for Transport offshoot, took over the East Coast line when the franchisee walked away, and ran it brilliantly. But the team was not allowed to bid to retain the route. Expertise and imagination are not the sole preserve of the private sector.
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