Rail privatisation: success or failure?

6 January 2017

As rail fares go up this week, we asked Survation to find out what the public thinks about privatisation. The results were covered in the Guardian and the Mirror.

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Andy McDonald MP, Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Transport: "These figures show that the public have made up their mind on the failure of privatised rail. What we have now is a government clinging to a failed model for purely ideological reasons, and passengers and taxpayers are being made to pay an ever increasing price. It is time for our railways to be run under public ownership, in the public interest as an integrated national asset in public hands with affordable fares for all and long-term investment in the railway network." 

Caroline Lucas, Green Party co-leader: “As the Southern crisis escalates it’s become increasingly clear that this private firm has utterly failed to manage this key piece of infrastructure which hundreds of thousands of people rely on. My constituents are increasingly angry, stressed and anxious by the endless incompetence of Southern. It’s no wonder that people want to see public ownership of our railways. For the Government to do nothing in the face of such failure would show that they are ideologically committed to the failed privatisation project, rather than seeking what’s best for passengers. We need a modern railway, owned by the people who use it and run for public good, not private profit.”

Rail experts

Lynn Sloman, Director, Transport for Quality of Life: “The We Own It poll shows that the general public sees clearly what politicians refuse to recognise. Ordinary people who actually use the railways understand that privatisation is a direct cause of the mess of confusing ticketing, misinformation and unconnected services that we suffer. Cutting up the previously unified national rail network so that private companies can extract profit has not been in passengers’ interests, and it’s not in the wider public interest. It is high time the Government also recognised the accumulated evidence of two decades of failed privatisation and abandoned their rail privatisation dogma.” 

Christian Wolmar, author and transport expert: "In our capitalist system, profits are a payment for a combination of two things: a return on an investment and a reward for the risk of losing that money. In the railways, neither of these factors applies. The train-operating companies in this investigation make no investment in the railways. They do not own the trains, the stations or the track. Moreover, there is no risk of bankruptcy. If a train firm gets into financial trouble, it can walk away from the contract. Train services have to keep running and the Government will take over. Of course, the companies pay for the odd improvement, such as better toilets or refurbished carriages, but that is taken into account in the bids for franchises. So it is effectively the Government that funds investment. The huge sums paid to railway bosses are therefore undeserved. They are not risk-taking capitalists creating wealth. They are merely running a public service which cannot be allowed to fail. And ultimately the money is coming from us."

Rail user groups

Oliver Lewis, spokesperson, Bring Back British Rail: "This polling re-confirms what we have known since 2009: that the British public's common sense understands this complicated privatisation has failed, and they want it reversed. We need MPs, Ministers and civil servants who will deliver what they want, an end to this franchising farce and a new, visionary BR for the future." 

Trevor Garrod, Chairman, East Suffolk Travellers' Association: "With passenger numbers double what they were in the early 1990s, and more frequent services on the Ipswich - Lowestoft line, we cannot claim that privatisation is a failure. However, operators, whether private or public need to be accountable to the democratically elected Government." 

Ray King, convenor, Cambridge Heath and London Fields Rail Users Group: "Passengers at Cambridge Heath and London Fields stations have benefited from a massive transformation over the 18 months that London Overground has run the trains. This is in stark contrast to the previous 18 years under a privatised franchise. Devolution to Transport for London has changed filthy, neglected and unstaffed stations into pleasant, clean places with very helpful staff, backed up by reliable services. The decision by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling not to transfer south London train services to the Overground deprives other passengers of similar benefits."

(NB London Overground itself is publicly owned, but it doesn't run the trains directly. Instead it has a contract agreement with private company Arriva to run the service.)

Anthony Berridge, Hon. Sec., Friends of the Barton Line: "While we are not averse to privatisation in principle we feel that the way it has been carried out contains some major flaws. But public ownership was also appallingly handled and it would be as well to learn from best practice elsewhere before subjecting our railways to another seismic change." 

Simon Barber, English Regional Transport Association​: "We believe that our rail fares are far too high and that the fare structure is totally unwieldy. Indeed commuting costs, takes time and basically one is looking at a 12- hour day away from home-life.Rail privatisation is virtually a complete failure.With high fares, many of our train services are poor and consequently give no value for money." 


Mick Whelan, General Secretary, ASLEF: "On every measure put forward by John Major 20 years ago, rail privatisation has failed. Fares, and public subsidies, have soared – we now have the highest fares in Europe – while trains have got more crowded. It’s outrageous that companies can, at no risk, take a private profit, made at public expense, out of the industry. That’s millions of pounds leaking every day which could be used to bring down fares, be ploughed back in investment in new infrastructure, or returned – like the £1 billion made by East Coast when it was in public ownership – to the Treasury to pay for schools or hospitals or housing." 

Manuel Cortes, General Secretary, TSSA: "This polling shows Abraham Lincoln was right when he said ' You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. 1% of the people polled here may still be fooled that rail is a success in private ownership but for the rest of us rail privatisation is a busted flush and the energy behind our campaign to take back control of UK rail companies is gathering pace. Delays, high fares, overcrowding and ongoing staff shortages are all part of the reason that rail privateers have lost the all important trust of their passengers.  Across Britain there is now a clear desire from the public for rail change. And the change is simple: Outsourced rail franchises must be brought back into public ownership as they run out." 

Kevin Rowan, Head of Public Services, TUC​: “Rail workers and passengers all agree: privatisation simply hasn’t worked. This poll confirms what union members, passengers and experts have been telling us for years. We want to see an efficient, well-staffed, modern rail service in public ownership, rather than the fragmented, privatised mess we currently have.” 

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Phil Drake replied on

Leaving political considerations aside, the level of subsidy necessary to sustain the present set-up is way higher than that given to BR. By all normal considerations privatisation has been a huge waste of money. Only the stupid belief that private=good, public=bad is keeping this system afloat. Nowhere else in the civilised world has the UK model been followed.

David Gibson replied on

The only reason that the present Tory Government refuses to re-nationalise our Railway is because they know it was wrong to nationalise in the first place and they do not have the integrity or honesty to admit that they were, and are, wrong. I have travelled on many railways in Europe and without exception they are infinitely better than ours, for efficiency, cleanliness, punctuality and above all level of fares. We can only match the European standards in the dedication and professionalism of the staff at the operational level. A recent report confirmed that fares in the UK are many times those in other European countries, and it has also been proved that the cost of doing any work or improvements on the UK network under privatisation are three to four times what they were under British Rail, inflation included.

Richard Birkhead replied on

All infrastructure such as transport and communications should be owned and run for the benefit of all.Due to the change from a Market Economy to a Market Society everything is seen through the narrow prism of Markets, a system which will never work as profits go to senior managers and shareholders, and the profit motive shuts unprofitable routes and drives up fares.eg Southern Rail given 20 million the day before announcing a profit of 100 million and the ceo gets a rise to £2.16 million a year!

Infrastructure lays the groundwork for the people who generate wealth to travel and communicate effectively and cheaply, and should be subsidised if necessary.

The days of knowing the cost of everything and the value (morally, ethically, and rationally) of nothing need to be ended.

Andii Bowsher replied on

I continue to be mystified by the idea that private companies in a state subsidised system are not simply, in effect, paying public subsidy to private investors via dividends. A clearer case of so-called 'socialism for the rich' can hardly be possible. Only not-for-profit companies or similar should be allowed to run state-subsidised industries or enterprises.

Richard Talbot replied on

I worked for BR and the private railway from 1982-2005. BR was hideously underfunded. One of the reasons why - despite its many, many downsides, privatisation has been a partial success is that it has an independent economic regulator like other utilities, so Network Rail charges are not subject to constant reduction in the way BR budgets were. One guarantee of 'taking back into public ownership' is less funding for the railways. Any politician who says otherwise is naive or lying. BR used to hike fares in the 1980s by way above inflation as the cash-starved BR was being prepared for sale. If BR had the money the industry has now we would all be happy, but this is never going to happen.

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