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Many of the problems afflicting the UK’s railways have their origins in the privatisation of British Rail. It is 20 years since the process ended, driven through in the latter years of a Conservative government that was in a hurry to shrink the state. On Wednesday, Theresa May’s government unveiled its latest strategy to redress the chaos.
On one point railway experts regardless of their ideological bent are mostly agreed. The decision in the 1990s to split the management of trains from tracks was problematic. Under state management the railways were run more closely as a unit — combining rolling stock, tracks and operations. Breaking these up has stimulated competition between different operators competing for franchises. But the fragmentation of the railways has also created many of today’s inefficiencies.
Chris Grayling, the transport secretary’s plans to move the running of trains and tracks closer together have received, therefore, a qualified welcome. The reform is intended to force greater collaboration, on selected franchises, between private train operators and state-owned Network Rail, which maintains infrastructure.
Since privatisation, safety on the railways has greatly improved. But both services, and the maintenance and upgrading of infrastructure, need to be more reliable and cost effective too. Since 1997, passenger numbers have more than doubled. The troubled roll out of new infrastructure has at times caused chaos. Ticket prices, meanwhile, rose at more than twice the rate of wages between 2010 and 2016. Passenger anger has been boiling over.
Mr Grayling calls his strategy evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In one respect that is a good thing. Sudden structural change can have long-term damaging repercussions. Restructuring tends to soak up the time of managers who should be focused on running the trains on time, and improving the track they run on. Yet tinkering — and there has already been plenty — may not produce the required improvements either.
Moreover, the proposed closer collaboration between Network Rail and selected operators could create its own problems. Among other measures, Mr Grayling announced on Wednesday that he will bring an early end to the failing East Coast Mainline franchise, between London, north-east England and Scotland. The current holder — a joint venture between Stagecoach and Virgin Trains — will exit its contract three years early and the payments that go with it. It will be replaced by a public-private partnership between a new train operator and Network Rail. Underscoring the complexity of this system, other operators of both freight and passenger services that use the same line but who do not have the same ties to the state-owned agency could be disadvantaged.
More broadly, it is vital that the incentives of the profit-driven operators and the publicly owned agency are aligned not only in co-ordinating services and maintenance, but also in the management of finances. In the case of the latter, it is not obvious where there will be common interest.
Mr Grayling has yet to spell out how he will reconcile these contradictions. The creation of new structures alone will not do so. One way would be to reintegrate the networks wholesale rather than piecemeal. But that would create the kind of structural disruption that the creaking system can ill-afford. It would also risk reversing some of the benefits that privatisation has brought. There is also public support for re-nationalising the railways altogether. That would be even more disruptive. The system can still be fixed.