The Great Train Robbery

Good to see today’s media heavily featuring The Great Train Robbery – a great new report from the CRESC team at the University of Manchester.

Part-funded by the TUC, this new report adds to the growing evidence base on the failures of privatisation. Over 160 pages, the University of Manchester team have provided forensic analysis of the numbers behind privatised rail.

Unsurprisingly, they have found that rail privatisation has spectacularly failed to deliver on the promises made by John Major’s Tory government at the time of privatisation. Large scale private investment, innovation, cheaper fares and more efficient use of public money have all failed to materialise.

In fact, the opposite appears to be true.

On average, trains are older, there’s more overcrowding, the fares are the highest in Europe and the apparently privatised industry sucks up even more billions of taxpayer funding, much of which ends up in the pockets of the shareholders of the train operating companies rather than being invested in the service.

Specifically, the report finds that:

Cost effectiveness – train operating companies are entirely reliant upon public subsidies to run services. The top five recipients alone received almost £3bn in taxpayer support between 2007 and 2011. This allowed them to make operating profits of £504m – over 90 per cent (£466m) of which was paid to shareholders.

Extra investment – the report shows how the average age of trains has risen since rail privatisation, from 16 years in 1996 to 18 years old today. Just £1.9bn was spent on rolling stock between 2008 and 2012, compared to £3.2bn between 1989 and 1993 (the four years before privatisation.) Over 90 per cent of new investment in recent years has been financed by Network Rail (the taxpayer funded body responsible for rail infrastructure), and comes mainly from taxpayer funding or government-underwritten borrowing, says the report.Significant upgrades to infrastructure, such as the development of the West Coast Mainline, have been paid for by Network Rail.

Passenger comfort – the report says while there has been a 60 per cent increase in passengers since 1994/95, there has only been a 3 per cent increase in new carriages, resulting in serious overcrowding on many routes.

Innovation – even where there has been private sector investment in new technology, such as Virgin’s tilting trains, it has been underwritten by the state through subsidies to train operating companies and guarantees to rolling stock leasing companies.

Added value –  train operating companies paid Network Rail just £1.59bn in track access charges in 2012, compared to £3.18bn paid to its predecessor Railtrack in 1994. This represents an ‘indirect subsidy’ from taxpayers as train companies are getting track access on the cheap. It also means that the full extent of taxpayer subsidy is far greater than is often reported. Investment in infrastructure has largely been funded through borrowing by Network Rail which now has debts of over £30bn, and is spending more on repaying this debt than on railway maintenance, says the report.

Competitive fares – the UK has the most expensive rail fares in Europe. Long distance, day return and season tickets are all around twice the price of similar tickets in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, which have publicly-run rail systems. Average train fares in the UK increased at three times the rate of average wages between 2008 and 2012.

More passengers – the report dismisses claims that privatisation has helped increase the number of people travelling on the railways. It says that passenger growth has mostly been down to rising GDP and changes in employment patterns rather than because of privatisation.

Commenting on the report, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

Rail privatisation has not brought the improvements its cheerleaders promised – the average age of trains has increased and most new investment is funded by the state.

The claim that private train operators are responsible for more people using the railways must also be taken with a huge pinch of salt. Passenger growth has mirrored changes in the wider economy and is not the result of creative marketing drives by companies.

The government must accept that the current model is broken. Its determination to impose franchising across the network – even on the East Coast Mainline which is performing well as a nationalised service – shows ministers are ignoring the evidence of 20 years of failure.

Leading the project for CRESC, Professor Karel Williams states:

The privately owned train operating companies have hijacked the government’s rail reform agenda which is all about ‘getting franchising back on track’.

Our research shows how the franchising system allows them to distribute profits at low cost from public subsidy.

It would make sense to abolish the train operating companies and it would cost the taxpayer nothing if it were done as the franchises expired.

Train and track operation could then be integrated under a new publicly-owned National Rail, operating within defined budgets over sustained funding periods.

We could not agree more.

The task now is to keep the pressure on for the only sensible alternative: a national, integrated railway under public ownership.

This is very achievable. Over the next few years, each of the current franchises will come to an end. The government can simply bring each one in house following their completion, with no additional cost to the taxpayer. And, of course, we need to stop the privatisation of the exemplar public service of the Directly Operated Railways on the East Coast Main Line.

This is a service which has been turned round following two previous franchise failures, has achieved record levels of passenger satisfaction on that line, performs better than Virgin Trains on the West Coast, receives the lowest public subsidy and has returned over £600m to the government, all of which gets re-invested in the service rather than being sucked out of the industry in the form of shareholder dividends.

The Great Train Robbery is an excellent piece of work and alongside other great work from Transport for Quality of Life and Just Economics, helps us build piece by piece, a cogent, rigorous and evidence-based argument for a better alternative for our railways.