Mahyar Tousi is a classical liberal Conservative video blogger. He is also a candidate in the 2018 local elections.
At this year’s Conservative party conference in Manchester, I found myself being outnumbered by Conservative members who wish to nationalise the railways. Whenever I am debating with a non-Conservative activist either on TV, social media, or on university campuses across the country, I have become accustomed to certain anti- free market and statist views. However, I was not expecting to get similar misguided and intellectually lazy arguments at a conference filled with centre-Right politicos.
Therefore, as an economically liberal Tory, I decided to present some information and facts about the topic and let other fellow Conservatives form their own opinions, away from the usual Left wing propaganda.
Our railways are not perfect, but a lot of people on the Left attack them for the wrong reasons. The main problem with this group of people is that their stance is not really supported by sufficient evidence. As these viewpoints are more emotion-based, they also end up providing the wrong solutions.
Railways get criticised on two main points. Expensive tickets and constant delays. These are the issues that are visible in commuters’ day to day lives. Advocates on the Left claim that tickets are expensive because private train companies are greedy and care more about profit than customer service. They suggest that this selfish and inefficient mentality exists due to the fact that the railways are managed by only a handful of private providers, making it a mini monopoly. The irony is that instead of creating competition in the market, socialists would aim to introduce an actual monopoly, owned and controlled by the government.
I personally believe that the best way for free marketeers to win the battle of ideas on this topic is to debate with facts instead of irrational arguments based on emotions. So, let’s have a look at some evidence.
Despite popular belief, our railways are only partly privatised – and this part privatisation has already brought a great deal of benefits since it took place in the 1990s. According to the Office of Rail and Road the number of journeys have doubled and the number of passengers have gone up by 135 per cent. In terms of punctuality, the United Kingdom scored 92 per cent, compared to 90 per cent for France and 80 per cent in Germany. According to the European Union, overall satisfaction with rail in the UK has been the second-highest in Europe for some time, behind only Finland. Currently at 83 per cent, up ten points in the last decade.
Now, some might suggest that those figures do not exactly address the real concerns about ticket prices and delays. In which case, let’s have a look at the following numbers.
Based on a survey done by Mark Smith, a railway expert, if we compare ticket prices in the UK to other similar routes across the continent, we will see that if a ticket is booked a month in advance, it is actually cheaper in the UK. Even if we book it one day in advance, it is still better value here. It is only when we book last minute on the same day that it becomes relatively more expensive. But who does that? How often? It is not necessarily common for regular commuters up and down Britain.
Now, onto train delays. You will be surprised to hear that delays occur thanks to the nationalised part of the railways. The infrastructure, tracks maintenance and day to day signalling are controlled and operated by Network Rail – which is a body of government bureaucrats – not the private train companies.
You might ask, what about the greedy train providers putting profit before everything else? The fact of the matter is that of each £1 revenue made from ticket prices, 22p goes towards maintaining tracks as well as trains, and 26p goes into investment in the railway – both of which are part of the nationalised section of the industry. 25p goes on staff salary and just three pence goes to the train company in profits. To put it into figures, private rail providers make a total profit of £343 million out of the revenue of £12.4 billion.
Above all, in the past, fully nationalised railways have made people unemployed and poor. To explain this, we need to compare the state of the industry pre and post nationalisation. Prior to the 1950s when the state ownership had not taken place, the sector employed 606,000 staff. By the 1970s and at the peak of British Rail’s government run monopoly, staff numbers had more than halved to 244,000 with two thirds of stations resulted in being closed.
Fortunately, there is a solution that has been proven to work across the world. In order to overcome these challenges, we need to truly privatise the railways by giving more power to consumers and private citizens who run these businesses, instead of government bureaucrats. We must say no to state monopoly advocated by socialists and instead say yes to free market competition and expansion of franchises. And most importantly, get the government out of the whole industry.