Andrew Vine: Why the time has come to renationalise our railways

Commuters trying to board a packed Northern Rail train
Commuters trying to board a packed Northern Rail train
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THE long-suffering passengers aboard the jam-packed Leeds to Ilkley train I was on the other day mostly had something in common.

The majority appeared too young to remember the much-maligned days of British Railways, the state-run network now routinely derided for terrible services and buffet-car food so revolting you wouldn’t give it to a dog.

But I remember BR and it was never as bad as things are now. It didn’t make such an almighty mess of timetables that people trying to get to work were left stranded, and in some cases fearing losing their jobs because their commute makes them consistently late.

Nor do I recall ever being packed as tightly on a BR train as I have been on recent journeys to Ilkley and Sheffield, the only option being to stand and count the minutes until the ordeal ended, leaving the train sweaty, flustered and filled with relief it was over.

This isn’t good enough. We’re paying customers, not animals to be jammed in as densely as battery hens. We deserve better than to have this sorry excuse for a service foisted on us.

The continuing debacle on trains across Yorkshire and the rest of the North may be the worst we have yet experienced, but it’s only another symptom of a rail network that isn’t doing what it is supposed to – transport people efficiently and comfortably at a reasonable price.

Instead of which we have trains that are horribly overcrowded or don’t turn up, and relentless price hikes, all presided over by a Transport Secretary who wriggles like a circus contortionist as he tries to evade responsibility.

The system isn’t working, and it’s time for a rethink. And that means giving serious consideration to nationalisation.

This is, of course, advocated by Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and it begins to feel like a policy which has arrived right on time, in contrast to so many Northern Rail services.

Whenever the next election comes, Mr Corbyn can confidently expect a surge in votes from many of those who routinely suffer the worst failings of the trains in Yorkshire. He will have already picked up an awful lot of support from passengers who suffered exactly similar misery on the Southern network last year.

His argument in favour of nationalisation is being made for him day in and day out in the North, by every service which can’t get people to work on time, or pulls out of the station resembling one of those old-fashioned world-record attempts to see how many people can be packed into a telephone kiosk.

And let’s face it, nationalisation is already happening. The return – again – of the East Coast main line to public operation after yet another failure of a franchise means that it is only Conservative dogma that stands in the way of recognising the merits of running the whole network in the interests of the country rather than the balance sheets of companies.

The last time the East Coast route was under public control, it performed superbly. My hunch is that this will happen again, further reinforcing the argument for nationalisation.

We don’t balk at running the NHS solely for the greatest public interest, so why not the railways, which are vital to the health of the economy?

Yes, the old days of BR had their faults, but that was entirely due to a lack of investment over decades. By the time of rail privatisation, much of the rolling stock was clapped out and the whole system creaking.

But re-nationalising the network doesn’t mean turning back the clock to scruffy mid-1970s trains and buffets serving that thing of horror, the BR
bacon roll, which any passenger over the age of about 45 remembers with a shudder.

It’s a different era now. The network and the trains have been modernised, working practices have changed, and consumer expectations are much

It feels very much as if we have reaped the best that privatisation of the railways had to offer, and it’s time to thank it for what has been achieved, and harness the benefits for the travelling public.

In recent years, I’ve travelled on the state-run railways of France, Germany and the Netherlands. Each is a model of how to operate a service – clean, modern, fast trains that run on time and have plenty of seats for everybody. And reasonably-priced, too.

If they can do it, so can we. Doubtless if advice were needed on the running of an efficient state railway, those European neighbours would gladly give it.

And there would be another merit to re-nationalisation. There could be no argument about who is responsible for failings, no buck-passing between operators and Government.

Britain gave railways to the world. Now we’ve become world experts at making a mess of them. It’s time to take them back into public ownership and start running the trains in the interests of passengers, and not political dogma or private-sector profit.