More popular than at any time since the 1920s, Britain’s railways are also more expensive than ever, bleeding not only passengers, in the form of higher and higher fares, but also taxpayers who are now paying an astonishing 40 per cent of the cost of the railways whether they use them or not.
Intended to bring about efficiency, responsibility and cost-effectiveness, the fragmentation of the rail network has, in far too many cases, led to precisely the opposite occurring. Something, clearly, has to be done and, in opting to implement the majority of the sensible recommendations made in Sir Roy McNulty’s report into the industry, Transport Secretary Justine Greening has at least made a start.
If the price structure can be reformed, while meaningful efficiency savings are introduced, as Ms Greening intends, then at last passengers may see an end to the succession of inflation-busting fare rises they have had to endure, even if the taxpayer must continue to underwrite the long-term costs of rail transport.
There remains much more to be done, however. As long as train companies are tied to prescriptive, short-term contracts that give them little freedom or incentive to invest, for example, the railways will continue to eat up public money and the Government will have to continue to intervene to control fares policy – precisely the situation, in fact, which privatisation was supposed to consign to the past.