Ross Clark Ross Clark

Why didn’t the Tories nationalise the railways?

(Photo: iStock)

The Conservatives can crow all they like about the benefits of privatisation – and make whatever claims they like about tickets being more expensive, and services worse, were the railways to be brought back under public ownership. But there is little getting away from the fact that Labour’s policy of progressive renationalisation of train services by taking over franchises as they expire is hugely popular with voters.

If the Conservatives were really that wedded to capitalism they wouldn’t have bunged the rail industry £12 billion in subsidies last year

YouGov has been asking the public whether they support this policy in a monthly poll going back several years. In the latest poll, 37 per cent of people ‘strongly’ support renationalisation, 32 per cent ‘tend to support’ it – while only 2 per cent ‘strongly oppose’ it and 7 per cent ‘tend to oppose’ it. Support for renationalisation eats deeply into the Conservative core vote. Even among the group least enthusiastic about renationalisation – the over-65s, who perhaps best remember British Rail – nearly three times as many people support renationalisation as oppose it.

All of which raises the question: why do the Tories continue to stick so doggedly to rail privatisation when they could have stolen Labour’s thunder by adopting the policy themselves? They have, after all, already renationalised one of the franchises – East Coast. The tracks themselves have been under public ownership since Blair renationalised Railtrack. Moreover, Rishi Sunak has not been slow to ditch other long-held Conservative polices and steal Labour’s thunder, such as on abolishing non-dom status. So what is it about the railways that seems to stop the Tories adopting what would appear to be a hugely popular policy?

It is hard to argue that it is ideology. If the Conservatives were really that wedded to capitalism they wouldn’t have bunged the rail industry £12 billion in subsidies last year – they would insist that train companies earn their own keep, or go bust. It is hard to argue, either, that the current system is working well, or shows signs that it could ever work well.

True, privatisation brought a large uplift in passenger numbers in its early years. But there is little sign of the lower fares we were promised, services remain unreliable and the whole industry remains as thwarted by union militancy as it was in British Rail’s day.

The Conservatives tell us that it is not the business of the state to run railways – yet many of the franchises are operated by other countries’ state railways. There is a fundamental problem: the system as it is offers little in the way of competition, except in a handful of cases where rail companies have taken advantage of the open access arrangements (and often been crushed by the franchised operators in the process). The new system of franchises, where private companies operate the trains but take no revenue risk, seems to have made things worse. Train companies have too little incentive to keep trains running and have taken to cancelling them at the first hint of bad weather.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this government is rather too easily won over by lobbying by vested interests – whether or not political donations are involved. Unfortunately, the people who will choose the next government aren’t just made up of the small cohort of train company shareholders.