Nationalisation a dirty word? Are you sure?

In a recent article ‘Nationalisation a dirty word?’  Jamie Kinnear Timson presents, as many before him, the case that the privatisation of our public services and utilities has effectively been a failure. Whilst I will not attempt to refute his arguments for utility services (essentially out of lack of personal knowledge) I take umbrage with some of those presented against the privatisation of the rail network.

Firstly Mr Timson makes an early error. Essentially he argues that East Coast Trains, currently owned and run by a branch of the Government, is on track for record customer service scores. Mr Timson used this point as a way of attempting to show that the current public ownership trumps its earlier private alternative. While the data Mr Timson used may be correct, he also failed to gather other essential elements. In statistics compiled by the Office of Railway Regulations, East Coast received 212 complaints per 100,000 between 2012-13. This places the ‘publicly’ run train operator in second place beaten only by Virgin Trains. It doesn’t take much to see that they fared worse than 17 other privately owned train operating companies. So I think on this occasion we can ignore the validity of customer perception in this argument.

It is also a truth that no other European country has followed the UK’s privatisation model for the railway. This does not show a causal relationship between privatisation and other European States not following this path. Other States have not followed the UK in in the realm of healthcare. They do not have a National Health Service. They have fully, partly or not at all state funded healthcare systems.  The German system is often held to be one of the greatest healthcare systems in the world. Yet it is partly funded by the state and partly privately funded. Hold on a second, this sounds a lot like rail franchising to me.

While it is an accepted fact that rail ticket prices increase a lot each year (and at present above that of inflation) I have never quite understood why people believe this would have been any less if we had remained under British Rail. Chronic underfunding during this period is the root cause of the excesses of today’s system. The current projects such as Thameslink, HS2, Crossrail and the previously completed HS1 would have been far more difficult to accomplish without privatisation. Yet all (despite HS2 depending on your beliefs) have had major economic and social benefits to their users. I defy anyone who had to stand on a platform at the old Kings Cross Thameslink to deny that using St Pancras is a much nicer experience.

In response to Mr Timson alluding to the superiority of cleanliness on our rail services I wonder if he might accept that it is perhaps the difference between attitudes of train users between us and the Germans. Furthermore I doubt that British Rail would have had any greater response to the great scourges of the railway: The Metro and Evening Standard.

There is nothing new with public companies having commercial arms in other counties. The BBC has been doing for quite some time to supplement the money received from licence fees. I believe that globalisation not privatisation is the driver in this instance.

Yes the railway system in this country is far from perfect. Far more capacity is required despite operating more trains that most of our European counterparts. But to present it as an argument against privatisation shows a lack of understanding behind why is was and remains necessary.  Our system remains one of the safest in the EU, caters for higher passenger numbers than ever and is currently modernising faster that a Javelin train.

So is nationalisation a dirty word? Not necessarily. It is however a redundant one if we want to if we want economic and social progress.

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