Great British Railways is the Tory way of admitting they were wrong over privatisation – Brian Wilson

Even if you have to hang around a while, it’s nice to be proven right. In the case of Britain’s railways, the journey has taken 25 years.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps deployed flowery rhetoric from the days of the Flying Scotsman as he effectively admitted the great Tory masterplan for the railways had failed, says Brian Wilson (Picture: Tolga Akmen-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps deployed flowery rhetoric from the days of the Flying Scotsman as he effectively admitted the great Tory masterplan for the railways had failed, says Brian Wilson (Picture: Tolga Akmen-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ statement to the Commons this week verged on the comical. Here he was, with flowery rhetoric dating all the way back to the Flying Scotsman, admitting the great Tory masterplan has failed.

There is “too much confusion for passengers”. The industry is “fragmented, it lacks accountability and it is lacking in leadership”. In the brave new world, “we are going to sort out and simplify ticketing”. And so amusingly on.

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It certainly brought back memories. I spent the mid-1990s making exactly these arguments as Labour’s spokesman on railways with the mission, at Westminster and around the country, of turning rail privatisation into an electoral liability for the Tories.

The role provided an enjoyable way to spend a few years in opposition and the more I got into the detail, the clearer the line to take became. While rail privatisation was bad, and driven by ideology, fragmentation was completely mad – and extremely costly. So it has remained.

While it was not possible to stop the folly of the 1990s, the consolation was that rail privatisation played a huge part in the fall of John Major’s government – because it was a threat which carried great resonance in parts of the country Labour did not normally reach.

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Mr Shapps was at pains to claim his new scheme is “not renationalisation” and he is technically correct. I reckon about 90 per cent of the industry will be in state hands. The Great British Railway – and please, spare us the flag-waving – will incorporate Network Rail (renationalised in 2002 after privatised Railtrack collapsed), ticketing and awarding operator contracts, as well as taking over once they flee when there is no more subsidy to fleece.

What distinguished railways from other big privatisations was that it was never an industry which generated profit. Under state ownership, you got the railway a government was prepared to pay for – and it was by no means as deficient as now pretended. Privatisation meant more subsidy and innumerable points of cash leakage.

The arch-exploiters of privatisation, like Souter and Branson, made fortunes before vacating the tracks while other great beneficiaries of rail fragmentation have been lawyers and accountants with vast numbers of contracts and disputes to rack up fees over. In future, hopefully, money earmarked for railways goes into services rather than sustaining those who feed off confusion.

In a token attempt to defend what he was in the process of dismantling, Mr Shapps claimed privatisation had led to “investment that would not have happened under nationalisation”. Tell that to every European country which has built brilliant rail networks over these decades while Britain’s remains mired in under-investment and unreliability.

The Scottish government has rightly decided to establish a publicly owned ScotRail which should be a route to ensuring value for taxpayers’ money and responsiveness to customer expectations. But don’t take it for granted.

We do not have to look far for confirmation that public ownership on its own does not guarantee happy outcomes. Caledonian MacBrayne is entirely owned by the Scottish government and, by common consent, is currently providing the most unreliable service across its network in living memory.

Everyone agrees the workforce is excellent, both on board ships and in ports, and there is certainly no shortage of money going into the twin sporrans of CalMac and CMAL. Yet the outcomes are inescapably awful with nobody taking responsibility.

There are differences between the structures which govern ferries and railways but there is one lesson common to both. Unless there is ministerial leadership, clear lines of command and management that knows what it is doing, public ownership alone will not guarantee a service Scotland can be proud of.

That said, for all who care about our railways, the prospect of trains, tracks and ticketing under public control should be seen as a great opportunity to redress recent history, with a duty to succeed. So let’s get it right.

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