Great British Railways?

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Late last night the news broke about the wide-reaching Government reform of the railways. In a couple of years time we will see the establishment of Great British Railways – which sounds more like a reality show, or a travelogue that features Michael Portillo’s yellow trousers.

According to the BBC, Great British Railways “will set timetables and prices, sell tickets in England and manage rail infrastructure”, that is, have control over both the physical network as well as the train operators.

I think we can all agree that the privatisation of the railways has not been a success. Quality has been inconsistent across the franchised rail networks, the fare structure has been a mystery to most travellers and there seems to be little central accountability for failures.

Are we really to believe that a right-leaning Conservative Government is planning to re-nationalise the railways? Undoubtedly the devil will be in the detail, so if you have had a chance to dissect the White Paper, known as by the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, do please offer your comments or write us a post.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Helen Dudden 20th May '21 - 9:39am

    So much of the railway structure was destroyed by Beeching. As I child I remember the steam trains, and visiting my grandparents in Radstock.
    Total destruction, then rebuilding, incidentally Radstock is still without that rail connection.
    When government, decided to remove large amounts of rail line to save money, it was at that time a terrible decision that still exists. Areas, just lost the connection to the outside world.

  • John Marriott 20th May '21 - 9:44am

    Having listened to Mr Schapps on radio this morning I have concluded that the plan is not nationalisation under another name. What it would appear to be is an attempt to rationalise, for example, the present chaotic ticketing system as well as putting the administration of our railways ‘under one roof’. It would seem that we are to have ‘son of franchise’ in that the rolling stock will stay multi coloured with a variety of logos, many run, it would seem, by foreign companies.

    What I would really be interested in is whether this new ‘Great British Railways’ is going to be a quasi private enterprise on the lines of Railtrack or more like its successor, Network Rail. Either way, I just wonder how much political interference will continue.

    I shall be interested to read what wiser heads than mine may have to say on the subject. At present my only connection with the railways over the past couple of years has been with the 00 Gauge variety, being the layout I created in our loft for my now middle aged sons, which I have finally brought back to life after nearly 20 years of neglect. (It was that or, following the ultimatum from my better half, getting rid!) Watching the Mallard and the Duchesse of Sutherland under LNER and LMS livery going round, as well as a few more trains from that vintage era has kept me quite busy! 😀😀

  • Nonconformistradical 20th May '21 - 10:22am

    “Undoubtedly the devil will be in the detail”

    In particular to what extent franchise holders would be required to take the elephant in the room – climate change – into account – providing services where needed most (and without bleeding the travelling public dry) rather than just those routes from which they can make biggest profits.

  • Privatisation has brought more trains, re-opened several lines closed and investment in rolling stock and signalling etc that would not have happened with continuing nationalisation. I live on the West Coast main line, do miss Virgin though. Looking forward to HS2.

  • Grant Shapps, alias Michael Green, Corinne Stockheath and Sebastian Fox. I prefer John Marriott’s Schnapps.

    Would you buy a second hand car from that man, never mind a railway ?

  • @John Marriott – in answer to your comment “What I would really be interested in is whether this new ‘Great British Railways’ is going to be a quasi private enterprise on the lines of Railtrack or more like its successor, Network Rail.”, the Grants-Shapps report is very explicit that it will be a public body – so probably more similar to Network Rail.

  • Aaargh! I mean, Williams-Shapps report. (Is it not possible to edit your comments once posted to fix typos here?)

  • The concern I’ve heard is that with 80% of staff in the new GBR being from the operational side, it may not be set up to pay enough attention to passenger needs. This might be the area to focus on – making sure that passengers aren’t forgotten in this operational reorganisation.

  • John Marriott 20th May '21 - 12:28pm

    @David Raw
    Sorry about the mis spelling. Being a bit of a German scholar (only a bit, mind you) I reckon that there might well have been a ‘c’ in it originally. As for the ‘n’, well, I could do with a stiff one at the moment (just finally finished off a bottle of 70% Single Malt last night, before anyone gets the wrong idea!).

    I’ve been watching that introductory oily smooth video that ‘Herr von Schnapps’ – to give him his Sasha Swire title – has made at the National Railway Museum at York. Seeing the REAL Mallard as opposed to the 00 gauge version in my loft – at least mine is still running and pulling a number of LNER teak coaches – really does put nostalgia for the ‘Golden Age of Steam’ to the fore. In fact it was so ‘golden’ that the big four companies that were formed after WW1 had to go cap in hand to the the Attlee government after WW2, which promptly nationalised them.

    Before we condemn privatisation out of hand, however, we should remember that it has had some success, as ‘theakes’ has pointed out. I would go further and recall when we tried to get a phone installed in our home when we returned to this country in 1974. We applied to the GPO and it took three months to get one. When the engineer arrived it took him most of the morning and copious cups of tea to do what seemed like a fairly simple job. When I asked him if he was busy I seem to recall his saying something like, “Yes, but I only have to do two a day”. Nationalisation, don’t you just love it?

  • Laurence Cox 20th May '21 - 12:38pm

    One change that must be introduced is to give responsibility for controlling all London suburban train services to TfL. At the moment, it is a mixture with some lines being controlled by TfL, while others are (or were until covid) controlled by the franchise holders.

    One financial advantage of the change is by removing the risk of losses to the franchising companies, their profits can be regulated to be much lower than in the past, just as the utility companies have been regulated.

    To keep David Raw happy, railways in Scotland come under Transport Scotland, an Executive body of the Scottish Government, so Grant Shapps’ writ doesn’t run north of the border, except for cross-border trains.

  • Katharine Pindar 20th May '21 - 2:54pm

    The increasing involvement of the State in economic and social affairs, and the change in Conservative party thinking and practice which that indicates, was usefully discussed on the Radio 4 World at One today. Of course that seems one reason why the Labour leadership is floundering a bit, since state intervention is supposed to be its prerogative, with the Tories sticking to the enhancement of the private sector. The Conservative party’s hegemony is I suppose based firmly in its chameleon-like capacity to change its appearance! But I am also thinking of how we Lib Dems should have increasing appeal ourselves to the British public, given our commitment to state involvement to back up public services and the private sector. We are surely in tune in this, as in so many public affairs, with what the public actually often needs and wants.

  • This new, improved ‘Great British Railways’ seems, at least to me, to be ‘neither fish nor fowl’..
    The more I read the more I believe that it will be the same companies doing the same thing, with profits going to shareholders, but with any failures being underwritten by the UK taxpayer..

  • @ Lawrence Cox Dinna fash yersel, young Lawrence. Your posts always give me chuckle – and I do know who runs some of Scotland’s railways, thank you.

    More important, John Marriott’s 00 Mallard is definitely an object for admiration. My first set was the LMS Duchess of Atholl on the old Hornby Dublo track with the three rails. It was later that I learned that the real Duchess was a maverick Tory MP of an infinitely superior type to Mr Grant Schnapps, Sir Edward Grey was a director of the LNER as was William Whitelaw’s Dad.

    A few years ago gave a donation for Tornado and one of my lifetime highlights was to ride on the footplate of dear old 4472 up the Long Drag on the Settle-Carlisle. I always tip my hat to the statue of Sir Nigel when passing through Kings X..

  • @Laurence Cox “One change that must be introduced is to give responsibility for controlling all London suburban train services to TfL.”

    From my understanding of the media reports, GBR sounds a lot like TfL, except for the national rail network. TfL if I understand correctly, “will set timetables and prices, sell tickets in England and manage (underground) rail infrastructure”.

    I suggest TfL is and should be subsidiary to GBR, although there should be much co-operation and joined up thinking.

    Yes it might appear sensible for those living within Greater London and thus looking out to consider giving TfL control of all London suburban services, only for those that live outside London, particularly to the north and thus having a broader perspective, it doesn’t make sense.

    To take an example, following the London centric logic, the London-Birmingham section of HS2 should be controlled by TfL (journey time at 45 minutes and the passenger journey’s it is wishing to capture puts it well within the definition of a London suburban service), but not the section north of Birmingham…

    No, it is time for national non-London centric thinking. If first thing GBR starts work on is the building of new ‘suburban lines’ between the Northern powerhouse cities ie. services with genuine need and business cases, then it will be good thing and help relieve some of the London overcrowding (by making this area more attractive to business and people)…

  • Neil Hickman 20th May '21 - 6:06pm

    @John Marriott
    Certainly the old GPO left much to be desired. Back in the 1950s it took my father over a month and the intervention of his MP to get a telephone installed after his aged mother was injured in a fall and he needed to be contactable.
    But privatisation as a wondrous panacea? Dream on. When I bought a house which was supplied with telephone and internet by BT I naively supposed that getting BT to supply me with phone and internet would be straightforward. Like hell it was. Including being told about eight straight-out lies in the process (the best being assured that my connection would go live at midnight, conjuring the amusing image of someone sitting in Hingham telephone exchange watching the minute hand of the clock).
    The aptest comment, Lord help us, was from an old school Tory, Alexander Pope – “For forms of government let fools contest/ Whate’er is best administered is best”.
    And as the people administering Great British Railways will probably include some of the people who have made a complete horlicks of running the railway system ever since Major cynically privatised the railways purely in order to land the incoming Labour Government with a headache, I am not optimistic.

  • Laurence Cox 20th May '21 - 6:30pm


    I don’t see why London suburban services should be taken away from local government (in this case the Mayor of London) and put under national government control. The simple fact is that the services I am talking about have nothing to do with the future Inter-City service that you referred to. London suburban services are commuter services but the opposite is not true. People have commuted to London for decades from towns on the South Coast, but that does not make these rail lines London suburban services. London suburban services are with a very few exceptions entirely within the M25 (it is only Crossrail that goes well beyond it, to Reading in one direction and Shenfield in the other).

    Logically, surburban rail in the North of England should be within the ambit of the metro mayors and they should be the ones telling GBR what they want, not being dictated to by Whitehall.

    @David Raw
    Your language defeats Google Translate, so I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. But then what you say doesn’t make any sense when you write in English! Raw by name, and Raw by nature seems to sum you up.

  • Steve Trevethan 20th May '21 - 7:13pm

    Might it be relevant to observe that we once produced outstanding railway technology but now we are reduced to importing faulty railway technology?
    Why have successive governments connived at this expensive decline into technological dependence?

  • John Marriott 20th May '21 - 7:18pm

    @Neil Hickman
    We tend to look back on nationalisation with rose tinted glasses. Yes, it made sense after WW2; but it was no more a panacea than privatisation has ever been. My ‘story’ about the GPO illustrates the kind of complacency, often trade Union delivered, that existed back then. No wonder that the RMT has already come out in opposition to Great British Railways.

    The damage done by weak management and over powerful Trades Unions were the prime causes of the Thatcher revolution, which has left a legacy from which we are still suffering and is largely responsible for our inability to move forward. As far as railways are concerned, something clearly wasn’t working. However, throwing the baby out with the bath water isn’t the answer either.

  • Peter Davies 20th May '21 - 7:52pm

    Of the various ways I have seen public transport organized the least bad was quite clearly the Tfl model. the difference is most clearly seen in the bus service but it’s also obvious with the trains. It’s hardly surprising that Boris Johnson who has seen it working even with him in charge would try to do the same nationally.

  • Brad Barrows 20th May '21 - 8:03pm

    @Laurence Cox
    I believe ‘Dinna fash yersel’ means ‘don’t get yourself worked up’ in the North east of Scotland.

  • “I think we can all agree that the privatisation of the railways has not been a success”

    Um… I do remember BR & you did feel that the passengers were viewed as an inconvenient obstacle to the efficient running of trains!

    The most they could get with away as a slogan was “We’re getting there”. To which riposte was “When?”

    For those that think a nationalised BR was great see the documentary

    And people in this programme thought that BR wasn’t getting there:

    But as the documentary says, of course the main issue is how much subsidy – whether publicly or privately run. GBR’s model is that in London for the buses (tube & TfL rail) where the Mayor/TfL sets the fares & the routes & private companies then run them.

    This only marginal differs from the current franchise system on the railways were the franchisees have to operate a minimum (detailed) service & spec. set by the Gov. & there are quite a lot of regulated fares & how much many tickets can be increased by.

    It is a step forward but not very far away from the current system. There are pros & cons. And if a commercial operator competing with coaches, cars and planes think it can attract passengers by offering a better service pattern than the minimum or good value fares at certain times etc. then everyone benefits. Equally under the new system there may be more political pressure to improve things such as Northern Rail….

    On fares. I’d venture the fare system is now reasonably straight forward. In that there are basically Anytime (peak) fares, off peak and then Advance fares where you get a good deal by booking ahead and committing to a specific train – just as with cheap air fares. And actually this structure will continue according to the white paper.

    And it is very difficult to disentangle all the different aspects from the old BR v what happened under privatisation. BR improved a bit in the 80s – the SE was revamped with brightening up the stations and giving them a lick of paint and introducing the Network (South East) Railcard for cheaper off-peak fares in the SE. But sometimes nationalised industries and politicians lack such commercial nous.

    And some services which improved would have got new rolling stock anyway and some that didn’t wouldn’t necessarily have got the investment under nationalisation.

  • @Laurence Cox @Roland

    There is an issue. I think overall the Government (esp. with Boris as a former Mayor) is likely to give cities/city regions more say in running transport including rail but also tube/light rail and buses as an integrated system and Burnham has got permission to run buses in Greater Manchester along the TfL model and is pressing for it to come quicker.

    In London there is an issue that TfL started off not running any rail (as supposed to tube etc.) services but now does. And you can also for example hop on a train that starts well outside London at a station in London.

    You can use for example a Network South East Railcard to get a third off tickets in London but there’s a minimum fare of £13 except at weekends but you can’t use it with an oyster pay-as-you-go card only paper tickets so you can’t get the daily/weekly caps that you get with an oyster card…..

    If you avoid zone 1 and go by a combination of TfL service (rail/tube) it costs less and TfL rail services tend to cost less than national rail (operators other than TfL) but then TfL has a peak time in the afternoon that national rail doesn’t.

    The upshot is that for example between say Lewisham and Clapham Junction return you could be charged £3 or £10 or a lot of fares in between and depending whether you start at Lewisham DLR station or at Lewisham train station or one of the Lewisham rail stations served by TfL rail….. And the cheapest fare is not necessarily the best as you might need a paper ticket rather than an oyster ticket but if you making other journeys in London to get the cap you want the oyster ticket…… !!!!

  • David R/John M debate nationalisation v. Privatisation:
    Spent my career in the electricity industry, seen both sides of the system, not convinced either is much superior to the other. But the worst experience is the transition from one to t’other for the staff affected. Something rarely considered. Also the role of the regulator can be destructive, again rarely talked about.
    David Raw: Tipping your hat to Sir Nigel Gresley’s statue! When one is erected to Mr Churchward I’ll do the same, and I’ll let everyone figure out at which London station that should be!

  • John Marriott 21st May '21 - 9:35am

    Um…….”I’d venture the fare system is now reasonably straight forward”. Only “reasonably”? That is simply not good enough. Why should you have to shop around, calculator in hand, for ‘the best deal’? Mind you, I suppose some people find satisfaction in beating the system. It’s like the utility companies. I honestly can’t be bothered to keep chopping and changing just to save a few quid. I used to get my gas from the privatised East Midlands Electricity Board and my electricity from British Gas, until I finally opted for ONE provider a few years ago, with whom I’ve stuck come hell and high water. I haven’t got that many years left.

    But back to the trains. I’m glad I haven’t got any shares in Trainline, which looks like having a bit of government backed competition in future. And, at the risk of creating another tangent, are we REALLY going to press ahead with HS2? HS3, yes; but, if push came to shove, I’d rather some of these massive sums were spent on upgrading more of our regional lines. Mine is an absolute disgrace. The present bargain bazaar (or should that be ‘bizarre’?) system of ticketing has quite frankly put my wife and I off using trains more frequently for many years. Rather than ‘multiplication’ being ‘the name of the game’ what we really need is more ‘simplification’ (sorry Mr Darin).

  • @Michael 1, @Laurence Cox

    Thanks for the clarification on London suburban v. London commuter v. Network South East.

    I think all your points are valid, the question must be around how GBR operates and who it (meaningfully) consults with, I suspect much will depend on where it locates its HQ…
    Personally, Melton Mowbray comes to mind as it doesn’t benefit from any direct London services nor east-west cross country services yet it does have a railway line and is in the East Midlands – an area of high growth that will not be served by HS2. I also don’t live in Melton Mowbray (although I do live in the East Midlands).

  • Antony Watts 21st May '21 - 10:52am

    Wonderful. Get rid of franchising, and different service and fares for the same jouneys.

    But no we need the same approach for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Right now there is chaos, with 50+ companies offering incompatible networks scattered across the country. In a very short time this will result in 1,000,000 frustrated BEV drivers and slow down or stop sales of EVs.

  • nvelope2003l 21st May '21 - 1:09pm

    I have never had any problems with train tickets. I just buy one and off I go. All these problems are caused by people looking for loopholes and getting annoyed when they do not understand why they cannot find one or get the wrong ticket and have to pay a surcharge. Most people would be rather angry if all shops charged the same price as they enjoy looking for bargains and feel good when they find one. The changes proposed by the Government are cosmetic as the railways have been controlled for decades by the Government particularly since Grayling was the Minister and the chaos was brought on by Governments not knowing how railways worked and imposing demands like running extra trains when the track and signalling could not cope either because it was out of date or the cost of improvements could not be justified by the existing or potential demand. I know many people who worked for BR and they were unanimous in there criticism of the waste and mismanagement and failure to resist the selfish demands of union leaders who were only concerned with their own positions. I heard one on the radio and his opinions were laughable if it was not for the cost that would be imposed on the taxpayers, most of whom rarely if ever use trains, often because their local line was closed many years ago by the Government. The only good thing which might come out of this is the restoration of some lines which were closed but I will believe it when I see it although I do recall trains which were used by only a handful of passengers when I was younger. I was interested to see that 11 miles of the track on the Okehampton to Exeter line which is to be reopened to passengers was relaid in about a month when normally such things take months or years. I wonder why

  • @Michael 1

    > On fares. I’d venture the fare system is now reasonably straight forward. In that there are basically Anytime (peak) fares, off peak and then Advance fares where you get a good deal by booking ahead and committing to a specific train – just as with cheap air fares. And actually this structure will continue according to the white paper.

    I would disagree with you here. Yes the fare types are broadly simple, but figuring out whether you are permitted to take a specific train can be very complex. With eg an off-peak ticket, it is extremely non-obvious which trains leaving Paddington on a weekday evening you are allowed to take. Combine that with a mishmash of discount cards which each have their own restrictions, and things do become very complex.

    The very existence of split ticketing as an effective way of saving money is also proof that something has gone awry.

  • @John Marriott

    With respect you are not reading my post. There are basically two different decisions.

    The first is peak v off-peak.

    We know that the trains are massively crowded in the (esp. the morning) peak so it is more expensive to travel then to discourage people to do so.

    The second is advance fares on a specific service bought guess what in advance v walk-up and buy on the day and/or for any service(within the peak/off-peak split) without a specific commitment to a specific train.

    And this is the same as with airline fares that no-one complains about and aims to balance out the number of people travelling across the services. If you buy an airline ticket several weeks ahead you get a good deal. If you choose a flight that fewer people are flying on you get a better price. So train companies offer a ticket on say the mid-morning service that fewer people want to travel on for less.

    But as with your electricity it’s your choice. If you never want to use advance fares and/or use the more expensive tickets that are valid in peak as well as off-peak there’s no compulsion to do otherwise.

    Not too difficult. Probably something even someone with even an Oxbridge degree – even it it wasn’t in Maths can understand!

    And you are in for a disappointment – the Government reforms keep this ticket structure.

  • nvelope2003 21st May '21 - 3:55pm

    Michael 1 regarding your penultimate paragraph, are you really sure when we have Transport Ministers who know nothing about trains and NI Secretary who did not know what Sinn Fein stood for and a PM who did not know what the Orange Order was and thought Unionists wanted Irish unity?

  • John Marriott 21st May '21 - 4:49pm

    @Michael 1
    “Trains massively crowded”? Where have you beeb these past twelve months? Will they ever really be crowded again?

    As for the price of tickets, I would have thought that most people just want a fair price – ONE fair price. I think that ‘Former Lib Dem’ has said it all.

  • Steve Trevethan 21st May '21 - 6:44pm

    Even the title on this (proposed) change to the railway system is yet another lie from this institutionally mendacious government.
    It only applies to England.
    See the attached for more detail and analysis.

  • nvelope2003 21st May '21 - 9:33pm

    John Marriott: The train I used yesterday was not massively overcrowded but it was twice as long as it was before the pandemic and there was a similar number of passengers in each coach as there used to be so it is reasonable to assume that other services, including peak hours, would have normal loadings too eventually but no doubt there will be variations.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd May '21 - 8:03am

    Former Dem:

    “With eg an off-peak ticket, it is extremely non-obvious which trains leaving Paddington on a weekday evening you are allowed to take.”

    This is actually a hangover from British Rail, where afternoon peak-time restrictions applied on Inter-City trains but not NSE (commuter) trains. The IC trains were the grand IC125 HSTs with a fixed formation, while the NSEs were less salubrious commuter-type stock, and both types had their own distinctive livery. So it wasn’t at all difficult to determine which trains could be used on an off-peak ticket from Paddington (or any other London terminus served by both IC and NSE trains). This worked for a while after privatisation, as the former IC and NSE services were initially in separate franchises run by different companies, so you could still tell them apart whether they were repainted or still in the original BR livery. Now (almost) all mainline trains from Paddington (except Heathrow trains) belong to the same franchise. GWR tends to use the same rolling stock and livery for both commuter and long-distance trains, making it much harder to tell. You can’t even necessarily tell from the stopping pattern, because some NSE services ran non-stop between Reading and Paddington just like the ICs did.

    “The very existence of split ticketing as an effective way of saving money is also proof that something has gone awry.”

    It sometimes was under BR as well. For example, one could save by splitting a long-distance peak journey to or from Paddington at Swindon. BR also made some attempts at market pricing, so the fare between Newcastle and Edinburgh could be higher than the combined fares to and from Berwick-upon-Tweed. The difference then was that BR could (and would) refuse to sell a saving combination of tickets to a customer who asked for it in a single transaction. Privatisation brought about a requirement for impartial selling, meaning that if a customer asks for a particular combination, the ticket office is obliged to sell it if the customer asks for it. It is also explicitly (in the National Rail Conditions of Carriage) permitted to use more than one ticket for a journey as long as the train stops at the splitting station (not always the case in other countries).

  • John Marriott 22nd May '21 - 8:43am

    In many ways the argument of ‘private good – public bad’ is about as stale as the old British Rail sandwich. Some of you may remember the farce over the East Coast Main Line when the franchise holder, National Express, defaulted because it couldn’t make a profit (I presume for its shareholders). The result from the then Labour government was a ‘not for profit’ company (East Coast) which did a magnificent job until, after six years of successful operations, the by then wholly Tory government insisted on handing it back to the private sector in the form of Sir Richard Branson in partnership with another doyen of private enterprise, fellow knight, Brian Souter’s Stagecoach. Within three years it was back in government hands trading under the nostalgic name LNER, which is where it has stayed (so far!).

    The moral of this story would seem to me to be that there are some things both public and private sectors do better and there are others where you need to apply the best of both to avoid the worst of either. Railways might just be one of these areas.

  • nvelope2003 22nd May '21 - 3:03pm

    The franchise system required the operator to estimate the likely revenue as well as the cost of operating the service in accordance with the timetable required by the Government. Now the operators will only need to tender to operate the service as the Government will bear the loss or keep the profits so there will be less risk of default but no incentive for the opera

  • nvelope2003 23rd May '21 - 8:51pm

    the conclusion of my post of 22nd May 2021 should have read “but no incentive for the operators to make the service more attractive to potential passengers”. Effectively this is renationalisation and a return to British Railways as even they used outside contractors to perform various tasks but I believe that they could not use outside contractors to operate trains as the law did not permit it. The new arrangements allow GBR to operate trains. The reason why some services are operated by foreign state owned railways is that the profits were too low and there was uncertainty over revenue. The Government attempted to drive down contract prices by pretending that someone had put in a lower price, a tactic well known to anyone who has any dealings with them but eventually most firms could not be bothered except First Group and Brian Souter’s Stagecoach group although even they gave up. Foreign state owned railways presumably don’t need to make a profit so we must be grateful for that although British firms do operate subsidised railway routes abroad.
    Souter’s Stagecoach Group operated the best service we ever had on the South Western route. Maybe the Conservatives did not like him as he is an SNP supporter.

  • James Fowler 24th May '21 - 10:43am

    I think the private vs. public rail debate is almost entirely confected. The privatisation in the mid 1990’s was in name only, it’s much more accurate to view events as state controlled unification (BR) followed by state controlled fragmentation. The kind of policy decisions and ‘market’ structures that we saw in the so called privatised railway industry would never have arrived at or tolerated by a genuinely free market. Ironically, setting up fake markets in rail has done little except ruin the reputation of privatisation – an agreeable outcome for many contributors here I suspect.

    We’ll have to see what GBR actually means under its fair cloak. Initially, I’m quite positive because it seems a step back towards state controlled unification. If we’re not prepared to embrace the true reforms and benefits of privately operated transport, then we might as well go for a more openly centralised state system. Anything is better than fake markets, which are the worst of all worlds.

  • Alex Macfie 26th May '21 - 8:40am

    James Fowler: In what sense is the British rail market “fake”? And what would a “real” market look like, in terms of ticketing and services? I’m not sure people who say they want a “real” market really know what they would be getting. The reason we have the system of franchised services with mostly inter-available ticketing is lobbying from passenger groups, which wanted to ensure the continued availability of through tickets.
    What a “real” passenger rail market tends to lead to is things like the HST service between Brussels and Cologne being run by two rival operators with no inter-availability at all, making it very inflexible for anyone seeking to book a through journey involving that route. There are many other examples from mainland Europe of how not to do it. For instance, on some routes in France and Italy, part of the service is provided by open-access operators for which tickets cannot be bought from the main station ticket office which is run by the state operator, and again there is no inter-availability of tickets. And if you want a genuine example of a “fake market”, consider the long-distance RyanRail type services Izy and Ouigo (geddit?) in France, run by SNCF but totally separate from the main TGV services, not bookable at the station. Essentially it’s the state monoploy operator “competing” with itself.
    In the UK, all operators have to sell tickets impartially, so it is possible to buy tickets for any service, including open-access services, at any ticket office. I regard this as a good thing; it is an example of a well-functioning market, rather than a “fake market”.

  • James Fowler 26th May '21 - 9:01pm

    The list of reasons why the ‘privatisation’ of BR was a charade is too long to give here. Have a look at Terry Gourvish’s, Christian Wolmar’s, John Hibb’s books or Tim Leunig on the topic. It’s fair to ask what a genuinely free market might actually look like. Broadly, I’d be favour of a lot more discretion being handed over to the operators combined with road charging. I’m not claiming that it would be popular, but it would lead to better allocation of scarce resources.

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