The first time I got on a Northern Train, I was rained on inside the carriage thanks to a hole in the roof. Virgin Trains will forever hold a place in my heart as the worst rail firm I ever had the misfortune to use, but friends commuting daily using Northern hated the company beyond all measure — for being late, too infrequent, of poor quality, and, as with all rail travel in the United Kingdom, far too expensive.
So the announcement that the Conservative government is renationalizing the franchise after repeated failures has been greeted with joy by many. Earlier this month, Conservative transport minister Grant Shapps announced that Virgin would be stripped of its franchise. Then came the sudden news it was to be renationalized. The second biggest commuter rail service, South Western Railway, is also under threat of renationalization due to appalling performance and the constant threat of strike action resulting from its treatment of staff and the degradation of pay and working conditions.
After all the pre-election fearmongering that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour would nationalize every company under the British sky as a prelude to bringing your whole family into public ownership, the Tories have been remarkably quick to renationalize, and to talk about the prospect of further nationalization. This is, in some respects, unsurprising: during the election, Boris Johnson showed that he didn’t care much about truth or intellectual honesty, only smearing Labour and ramping up votes by sowing division and fear in the electorate. Haranguing his Tories for a policy U-Turn won’t matter much, because they care about neither policy, U-turns, nor their public image. Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, was circumspect, stating, “All failing rail contracts should be taken into public control as a major step towards uniting track and train,” and pointed out that the government could have stepped in far sooner to hold Arriva, the company running Northern Rail, to account. Arriva also sued the government, as many other private firms are doing — costing the taxpayer millions more due to Tory incompetence in addition to the ludicrous privatized system.
It shows the slow inevitability of nationalization: two-thirds of the public support bringing trains back into public ownership, including many like me, who can’t remember a time when they weren’t privatized. People of all ages use the system, see the exorbitant rail fares, experience late and canceled trains and major overcrowding, and know that someone, somewhere, is making a mint from our discomfort and inconvenience, on a service that usually has a monopoly and that we have no choice but to use. When rail firms fail, simply letting them collapse would mean that millions of journeys to work, or for visits to family and friends, couldn’t be made. Besides the loss of productivity, it would enrage every person affected. The government can’t afford to let that happen, so it steps in to renationalize when necessary, regardless of ideological background.
As more and more franchises are blocked, stripped, and renationalized, privatization becomes exposed as a failure. Dissatisfaction with service is rampant, and despite a near universal consensus in the UK that climate change is an issue, it often ends up cheaper to take a very short flight than a long-distance train. The majority of those doing so tend to be regular travelers — most people wouldn’t entertain the idea of taking a flight from London to Scotland — but the cost of train travel, including the disastrous and exorbitant refurbishment of the Caledonian Sleeper train, makes such trips more enticing. Without cheaper, more reliable rail, the number of domestic flights will never decrease, and private companies are under no inducement to lower their fares.
But rail staff also deserve better. They are as squeezed as passengers: each time they consider striking, they are demonized by the press in the same way staff at airports are. For logically choosing particularly busy times to strike, so as to have maximum negotiating leverage, they are depicted in the press as uniquely vindictive, in a way that striking teachers and nurses aren’t, as if they personally wished to “ruin Christmas” for others. In reality, staff across various franchises have been raising concerns about the threat to safety from lower staffing levels, the many risks for passengers of driverless trains, low pay, poorer working conditions, and the removal of overtime and antisocial hours payments. If the government wants a more reliable service, running several franchises itself and dealing with a single integrated workforce is a far more streamlined and rational approach.
But the rail network needs more than just straight nationalization: it also needs huge investment, much better infrastructure, and for many previous cuts to train services to be reversed. The country is full of derelict railway lines thanks to the Beeching cuts, which closed lines and reduce costs. In a precursor to the Northern Rail decision, Transport Minister Shapps claimed renationalizing Northern Rail would also involve the repeal of some of the Beeching cuts, citing the Blyth Valley parliamentary constituency — which turned Conservative from Labour at the general election — as one of the first places likely to see a reopened line. This is cynical politicking: the whole UK needs more rail lines and stations, not just Tory areas. Getting around vast swaths of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales via train is impossible, and since the aim of any government now should be to reduce car use, the transport infrastructure across the UK needs to be considered carefully, with particular care given to how demographics and needs have changed in recent years. Reopening a handful of old lines won’t do; thinking about where people want to go, and what they could do if they could get there on public transport is key.
No train plan will be at all helpful without considering local buses, too: though the individual costs are smaller, the system is also a mess. Staying at a friend’s for the Tory Party conference in Manchester a few years back, it cost me around £16, paid to two different companies, to travel a short return journey that involved four buses in total. The same trip took 10 minutes, instead of more than an hour, via Uber, and cost only £4 each way. Privatized transport has ruined the experience of travel but is also deeply dysfunctional, even as it still enjoys government funding.
The tide is inexorably turning toward nationalization; even the Tories can’t stop it. But it’s important to recognize what this is about. It doesn’t signal any shift in ideology by the Conservatives. Rather, it reflects quiet acknowledgment of the fact that capitalism has failed in UK rail — and that, yes, Labour was right: transport, and many other things, should be run by the people for the people.