Rail renationalisation: A long way down the line?

Rail renationalisation is back on the cards again. It is a subject that won’t go away. When the railways were last in private ownership (pre-1948), nationalisation was seen (by some) as a panacea; now that they are back in private hands again, the reverse now seems to be the case! How very perverse!

We previously reported that Labour is contemplating another return to public ownership. It is not our role to take sides on an issue like this, but rather to examine the consequences and consider what practical problems such a change of tack might bring about.

Network Rail is already in public hands of course: If rail nationalisation (of the passenger rail franchises) becomes official Labour policy and the party wins the next election, they will be returned to the state upon expiry. However, this is likely to be a piecemeal and a very lengthy process.

For instance, three of the DfT’s 16 rail franchises will be awarded in 2014 but they will be for periods far in excess of the standard five year parliamentary term: Thameside will run to 2029; Thameslink Great Northern (which is to be merged with Southern) stretches to 2022; and (state-run) East Coast trains is scheduled for 2023 renewal.

A further complication is that the refranchising process for the Northern and Trans Pennine Express franchises (to be awarded in 2015), and those for Great Western and Greater Anglia (to be awarded in 2016), will commence before the date of the next general election (7 May 2015) and is likely to go ahead regardless of a change of government.

This means that eight out of the 16 rail franchises will have been refranchised before Labour will have any chance of taking them back into public ownership. Labour will need to win not just the next election (in 2015), but the two subsequent ones as well (in 2020 and 2025) to bring all the franchises back into state hands.

Then there is the question of what will become of the Scottish rail franchise (which comes under the Scottish government and is not a DfT responsibility). Assuming, of course that by this stage, Scotland still remains part of the United Kingdom.

647/May 14

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