Railways - beyond Privatisation: A Strategy for Bringing Railways Back into Community Control

By Salveson, Paul | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Railways - beyond Privatisation: A Strategy for Bringing Railways Back into Community Control


Salveson, Paul, Soundings


Britain's railways have always been profoundly political. Ever since the inauspicious opening day of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on 15 September 1830, when William Huskisson MP was mown down by Stephenson's Rocket, railways have had an uneasy relationship with politicians. And the question of ownership and co-ordination of the railways has always been a central area of dispute.

In 1997 the Blair government inherited a railway which had been privatised by John Major four years earlier, having made a commitment to creating a 'publicly-owned and publicly accountable railway'. This never happened, and for the last twenty years the structure inaugurated by Major has remained largely intact. During this period the cost of the railways to the state has nearly quadrupled - contrary to Tory claims that privatisation would reduce the costs of a bloated state-run bureaucracy. However the current franchised system hit the buffers in October 2012, when new secretary of state for transport Patrick McLoughlin announced the abandonment of the West Coast franchise and put a temporary halt to other bids. This article looks at past experiences of nationalisation and privatisation, and sets out a course for a new way to manage Britain's railways in a way that would meet the needs of both passengers and industry.

To start, we can take pride in the fact that Britain gave railways to the world. The astonishing talent of working-class Tynesider George Stephenson played a central part in creating a national railway network that for many years was the envy of the rest of the world. By the 1860s, Britain had built a national railway network that had been entirely created by private capital. But the state made an intervention at an early stage with Gladstone's 1844 Railways Act, which subjected the railways to 'such conditions as are hereinafter contained for the benefit of the public', including cheap 'workmen's' fares; and this legislation started the long process of regulating railway safety, initially through the Board of Trade. However, for a long time nationalisation remained an unacceptable proposition, despite many of Europe's railways becoming state-owned by the end of the century.

One problem was the co-ordination of a national system. What emerged was a network of scores of private companies, each 'vertically integrated' with ownership of their own tracks and trains - though negotiated arrangements allowed for some degree of shared use of track. There was duplication and even triplication of routes as companies vied for their shares of the cake of Victorian economic prosperity. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the number of independent companies had reduced as the larger enterprises, such as the Great Western, Midland, London and North Western and North Eastern Railways swallowed up the smaller fish.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the railways became a major focus for socialist and radical liberal attempts to tame unbridled capitalism. Critics of the railways pointed to excessive profits, a casual disregard for the safety of both passengers and employees, and the often inadequate standards of punctuality and comfort. Overcrowding on suburban services was rife, leading Lord Chief Justice Russell to comment in the 1890s that 'men, women and children are forced into trains in a way they would not herd sheep or bullocks'. This was grist to the mill for bodies such as the Railway Nationalisation League, formed in 1895; and the Independent Labour Party, formed in 1893, included railway nationalisation as a key objective. The railway trade unions had also become a force to be reckoned with by the turn of the century, and even the moderate Railway Clerks' Association called for public ownership, putting forward some creative ideas on ways of involving both workers and businesses in what we would now call a 'stakeholder board'.

The first world war placed huge burdens on the rail network, and the system was placed under temporary wartime government control. …

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