I am all in favour of Mr Corbyn’s wish to debate political ideas and policies, and to look again at what we can do to improve the work and achievement of the public sector. One of his flagship policies is his stated wish to nationalise the railways. By this I presume he means he wants to take into public ownership the train management companies that are still in the private sector that have the leasehold right to run train services over the nationalised tracks.
These companies are already very heavily regulated by the state. The government lets contracts which specify services to be run, tells the operating companies the subsidies allowed and costs to be controlled. There are price controls on many of the tickets. In practice today we effectively have a nationalised railway, with the bulk of it directly state owned and controlled – all the property, tracks, signals, stations, are in public ownership and the train service management heavily regulated. Only train ownership is private sector under a system which is like an elaborate PFI arrangement.
So my questions to Mr Corbyn are these
1. What added powers would a fully nationalised railway enjoy which the nationalised railway does not already have by virtue of monopoly ownership of track and stations, and strong regulation of train services?
2. How would you use additional powers over train management to improve things, and why couldn’t this be done under existing regulatory powers?
3. Why is the performance of the completely nationalised Network Rail so poor? Why is it 25% less efficient than continental railways? Why does it often have to pay large performance penalties? Why does it need more subsidy when its valuable assets are on a balance sheet with so little net value?
4. Why was it unable to carry out a large agreed investment programme to expand and improve the track and signals in many parts of the country despite having access to large sums of taxpayer money?
5. Would you want buy up all the engines and rolling stock, and if so how would you pay for that? What would be the benefits of owning rather than leasing?
When asked in polls those people who say they want a nationalised railway want a better railway and are often unaware of the huge extent of public ownership and control already present in UK rail.