‘Great British Railways’? We Should be so Lucky

It was somewhat surprising this past week to hear the Tories announce their plan to ‘simplify’ the country’s fragmented, privatised rail system. It was even more surprising to see some on Twitter interpret this to mean that the government will ‘nationalise’ the rail system. It plans to do no such thing, of course. But the story, and the misconceptions around it, can help shed light on the Conservatives’ overall strategy — and the dire state of UK politics.

Quite.

First, the most important point: the Tories do not plan to ‘nationalise’ the rail system. The initial BBC headline claimed that the government would bring the railroads ‘under unified state control’.* As this Twitter thread ably explains, that framing is deeply misleading.

In fact …

  • The system will be more coordinated, with, presumably, central control over timetables and fares.
  • Ticketing will be simplified, with more pay-as-you-go options, new flexible season tickets, and a single, unified compensation scheme for delays and cancellations.
  • Private companies will continue to operate the trains, and will receive public money directly to do so.

There is more to the proposal, of course, but these three points capture the important aspects. The third is crucial. Far from ‘nationalising’ the railways — that is, bringing them into public ownership — this plan would, at best, change the way private shareholders receive public money. At worst, it would protect private capital from what may be a long-term slump in passenger numbers in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stopping private companies skimming cash directly from increased train fares might be good in the short-term, and increased state control may even help to keep prices low for passengers. But, in the longer-term, this might serve only to protect private firms’ incomes while the public sector is left to foot ever-higher bills.

As ever, the Conservative Party can be trusted to deliver for its true constituents.

This point has also been underemphasised in most coverage of the proposal. There is a benign explanation for this: news tends to focus on things that change, and this proposal will do nothing to change who profits from our transport infrastructure.

Still, we might expect journalists to recognise the Conservative strategy here. From the (deceptive)** name to the initial BBC presentation of the idea, this policy was devised to look like something bigger and better than it was.

Rail nationalisation is consistently popular among the UK public — unsurprising, when you consider that we pay some of the highest fares in all of Europe.*** With ‘Great British Railways’, the Tories have presented something with the cosmetic appearance of a popular policy.

As with Boris Johnson’s superficial rejection of austerity politics, his promises to ‘level up’ the North, his posturing on the climate crisis, and so on, ‘Great British Railways’ sees the Conservative Party do just enough to give the appearance of change, while continuing its core project of selling off the UK state to private companies.

We should expect no more. We should not, it seems, even expect our media to present this story to us honestly. As for our opposition party? Forget about it. Our task on the left is to reject the crumbs from Boris Johnson’s table, to develop our vision of a better society, and to fight like hell to achieve it.

*The headline has since been changed to ‘Better rail services promised in huge shake-up’. A somewhat obsequious presentation, sure, but no longer actively mendacious.

**In what is either an intentional slight towards Scotland and Wales or simple ignorance of their existence, ‘Great British Railways’ will either only operate as or only be branded as such in England.

***Ever-endearing in its defence of Conservative Party orthodoxy, the BBC takes great care to source and cut the data in ways that make British fares look cheaper. As the other cited sources show, the truth is somewhat more complex than the often-cited claim that Britain has ‘the highest train fares in Europe’. But our rail system is certainly on the pricey side, and far from the haven of efficiency promised by advocates of privatisation. Not that facts have ever stood in the way of free-market economists.

Alex left Oxford University in 2015 with a degree and depression. Now he teaches, writes, and tries to play music.