Alastair Dalton: Careful what you wish for over rail nationalisation

Nationalise the railways has become a popular chant among politicians and disgruntled passengers alike - but careful what you wish for.

Public sector LNER took over from privately-run Virgin Trains East Coast in June. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Few who remember British Rail (BR) are likely to want to return to those days.

But many more appear to be attracted by the idea of the state rather than the private sector running the network, on the basis that any profits are retained for public good rather than private shareholders.

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In fact, half of the system - the tracks, signals and other bits that don’t move - is already in public hands, and about to come under the tightest government control since privatisation 25 years ago.

Next year, Network Rail will feel the full impact of becoming a central government body by being subject to public sector spending rules for the first time.

It’s true the body has been given a five-year budget, which BR never had, and has had its funding increased, but it will no longer have the flexibility to carry money over to the following year, so could lose out.

The other half of the system - the trains - are still almost exclusively run by the private sector, but with highly detailed contracts that tightly control everything from timetables to fares.

Most operators also have to pay for their franchise to run trains, in some cases huge sums that have run into the billions.

But other franchises rely on public funding, such as ScotRail, and its Dutch operator have also failed to make a profit in its first two full years - with losses after tax increasing from £3 million in 2016 to £15m last year. Abellio is also spending £475m on two fleets of new and refurbished trains, which Scottish taxpayers would otherwise have had to fund.

But would the public sector run trains any better? The only way to find out was to take “mystery shopper” trips on the sole franchise in state hands - LNER, which took over east coast main line trains such as Edinburgh-London services with the collapse of Stagecoach-led Virgin Trains East Coast in June.

But if anyone thinks LNER is a shining example of how nationalisation could be better, it wasn’t showing itself last weekend.

In first class, I encountered a broken toilet, dirty cutlery, and rubbish on the floor just one stop after leaving Edinburgh. Part of the rubber surround was hanging off a door.

No hot food - or alcohol - is offered to first class passengers at weekends, as with Virgin.

But LNER has cancelled Virgin’s free BEAM entertainment app enabling passengers to watch films and TV programmes, which I’m told it could have kept.

On the return journey on Monday, while some staff were cheery, the approach of others rankled. I was asked if I would like to order some hot food, which was followed by, inexplicably, “Have you had something already?”

Then, before I could order a dessert, it was announced at 7:35pm - nearly two hours before the train reached its destination - the “cafe bar has now closed”. Staff there were unable to say whether I’d missed a previous announcement it was about to close.

If I had been paying the £244 for my first-class seats - £100 more than standard class - rather than travelling as a guest of LNER, I would have been none too pleased.

Two random journeys. Maybe I was just unlucky. But the public sector will have to raise its game to persuade passengers it’s any better at the controls.