State Control of Rail in the U K 20 Years After Privatisation of British Rail: Perspectives on Effectiveness and Efficiency
Austin Smyth, University of Hertfordshire, Luke Kelleher, University of Hertfordshire
This paper reviews the evidence for the competing claims made for and against state ‘control’ of rail in the UK.
The first privatised trains on the erstwhile British Rail network operated twenty years ago on 4th February 1996. Nevertheless, there has been continued if periodic talk about and calls for renationalisation of the network in Great Britain. This has reflected continuing criticism of levels of satisfaction with the quality of service and fares from a user perspective and from a government and operator perspective the costs of operating and maintaining the system since privatisation, coupled with the apparent inability of various government appointed bodies and the industry itself to bring those costs down. These criticisms are over and above the actual costs involved in providing new capacity or updating the exiting network.
More recently the question of accountability and the status of elements of the industry, most notably Network Rail, have raised its head prompting the current Shaw review of the latter organisation. The Shaw scoping study has identified some important issues including the implications of the designation of network rail as a public body for political intervention and securing funding for the railway, as well as ensuring management flexibility in responding to financial and operational developments affecting the rail sector.
In addition, calls for increased involvement by government at a city region level, it has been argued, offers new opportunities for developing such systems and securing benefits similar to those attributed to the increasing control of the Greater London mainline suburban network exercised by Transport for London and the Mayor. However, there are reasons for urging caution in assuming such benefits will accrue to other conurbations.
More generally the question of how relatively effective and or efficient the system is has not been subject to much detailed consideration. This paper reviews the evidence for the competing claims made for and against state ‘control’ of rail in the UK. It takes into account public funding where such information is available. The paper draws on a variety of published and unpublished sources together with consultation with rail professionals. It offers some bespoke indicators developed by the authors at an operator and route level. It goes on to consider the apparent inability of the rail sector to being down costs in the aftermath of the McNulty report and compares the effectiveness and efficiency of selected train operators across this spectrum of state control exhibited in the UK rail sector. The primary focus is on regional and suburban rail systems. It concludes by identifying some of the key barriers to state intervention if the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the system is to be improved.
Association for European Transport