Were Britain’s railways entirely privately owned, operating entirely independently, and lightly regulated only by general company and competition law, it might be appropriate, even commendable, for ministers to stay out of the current dispute. In reality, of course, the railways are anything but, and are much closer to being creatures of the state than free agents taking their chances in the free market.
Various parts of the railway network and its operations are in fact publicly owned; the franchises the train operators enjoy are awarded by the state for a limited period; their fare structures are dictated by ministers, in effect; they are subject to special safety regulation by the government, and the Treasury pays for much of the still-huge programme of investment in them, and subsidised them before, during and after the Covid lockdowns.
So Grant Shapps is acting rather foolishly in pretending that the government isn’t an active interested party in this dispute. If nothing else, the government ought to take notice of the wider damage to the economy that these stoppages will cause, and do everything it can to mediate the dispute – both in its own interest as shareholder and chief funder and taxpayers more widely.
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