David Thorpe recently wrote a Liberal Democrat Voice piece advocating the (piecemeal) renationalisation of the railways and the latest LDV survey found more than 40% of members want the railways fully nationalised. I wish to provide some historical context and offer an alternative solution.
Nationalisation in1948 was the culmination of a process started by the First World War. During the war, the railways were taken over by the government, run-down and eventually consolidated into the “Big Four” companies in 1923. WWII brought a greater strain and consequently the Transport Act 1947 created British Railways, followed by a 46 year period of great modernisation but also colossal waste and network decimation. The 24,000 mile network was halved by successive governments, each bringing their own wasteful investment projects and upheavals. Long-term, profit-driven investment by private companies had been exchanged for the short-term, vote-driven schemes of politicians.
Privatisation saved the railways. It was certainly imperfect and deliberately rushed by both the Conservative and Labour parties; the Major government was a minority one and privatisation was allowed to progress by Labour, to get it out of the way in time for the 1997 election. 15 years later and much has been improved with regards to franchises – despite the headlines. High fares are the result of Westminster’s dalliance with the railways and the need for high amounts of corrective investment.
I contend that Westminster, Whitehall and the railways (perhaps public transport in general) do not mix and propose a new approach which incorporates and improves the current arrangements whilst avoiding the problems of the past:
Abolish the Department for Transport (at least its role in the railways), with its railway responsibilities and powers devolved to Local Authorities, acting together through new Regional Rail Transport Executives (RRTEs).
RRTEs would be groupings of Local Authorities, loosely based upon the former British Rail operational regions (each covering a fairly distinct set of lines) with the exception of the Greater London Authority, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which could have RRTEs of their own.
Each RRTE would be responsible for funding (through a separate tax or Council Tax precept), spending and co-ordinating services and in effect be larger, more empowered versions of the Passenger Transport Executives and Integrated Transport Authorities that the metropolitan counties have today.
Significantly, RRTEs would be responsible for the specification and tendering of franchises for lines within their borders and work with neighbouring RRTEs for inter-regional franchises and traffic. This would put control of who wins which franchise in the hands of passengers through their councillors, instead of central government and civil servants and make operators more accountable to fare payers.
Devolution would make infrastructure spending more equitable between regions, less vulnerable to Westminster and Whitehall whims and help promote Local Authorities beyond being mere agents of central government. Tackling high costs and fares is another area where land and wealth taxation can help.
* Richard Shaw is a Liberal Democrat activist in Sheffield, a member of the Sheffield Local Party executive and is standing for election to Sheffield City Council in May 2014.