Monday, 22 August 2011

Privatisation for better or worse

There was a letter in the Guardian on Saturday, some anti-cuts group pleading to stop the government privatising public services. I read it when I was in the pub, drunk on my own on a Saturday afternoon and a particular line stuck in my head.
If the plans go ahead, companies will be able to make a profit from services previously run by the state and local authorities, while taxpayers subsidise them. This approach has not worked well for passengers on our railways or for many sickness benefit claimants assessed by the private company Atos.
Cos of course everyone knows that the railways have gotten worse since they were privatised.

I recently went to a music festival called Indietracks, at a railway museum in the Midlands, I go every year, its great, you get to play with steam trains and see the same familiar faces every year.

One of my favourite acts is The Sweet Nothings, a four-piece lead by Pete Green, they have songs about indiepop, football, politics and one special song about the railways called Hey Dr Beeching.

At Indietracks I was a bit miffed atHey Dr Beeching and Pete Green, cos the final verse is about how Pete Green dreams about going back in time and killing people who he disagrees with, like the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, former British prime minister Maggie Thatcher and from the song Dr Beeching. I was a bit miffed cos in Norway a few weeks before, some gentleman had similarly taken upon himself to try to execute an entire generation of politicians he disagreed with.
It just seemed a bit distasteful.

Anyhoo, in the preamble to the song Pete Green described how the evil Tory government of the 1960s had employed Dr Beeching to downsize the UK rail network, and close down more than 4000 miles of railway line.

That happened whilst the railways were under state control, not privatised.

Wikipedia’s great, let me remind you, there have been public railways in the UK for over 180 years and for much of that they’ve been run by private companies. Although there were first calls for the nationalisation of the rail network in 1840, it wasn’t until the first world war that they were nationalised. The state controlled them from 1914 to 1921 when they were returned to private companies, that is, after seven years.

They remained in private hands for another 2 years until 1947 when they were nationalised again, and remained so until 1994 when they were privatised a second time, that’s another 47 years.

Anyhoo, this got me thinking, maybe the anti-cuts people who’d written to the Guardian were right, that privisation of the railways had adversely affected the passengers more than the nationalisation of them had, or maybe it had benefited the passengers. I dunno, I’d have to research the matter a bit more. Maybe try to dig up ticket prices and see how they’ve changed depending on ownership, that would be a cool graph to demonstrate the benefits to passengers, if not to taxpayers.

Sadly it was too much hassle to find train fare information stretching back a hundred years, without popping along to the London Transport Museum and leaf through the old timetables and fares. Although wikipedia did have a graph which is useful.
One of the clearest things one can take from this graph is the long steady decline in passenger journeys after the railways were nationalised in 1947. Sure there was a rise in numbers after the depths of 1980, but it wasn’t until after privatisation that numbers climbed back to the heady heights of the 1920s and 2010.

Clearly, passengers voted with their feet and freely chose to use trains for more journeys when they were in private hands, somewhat contradicting the anti-cuts letter in the Guardian.

Not necessarily so though, as this graph only shows passenger journeys, not passenger miles. It could be that due to privatisation longer rail journeys have been broken down into many shorter journeys to make up the numbers. But in the light of Beeching’s axing of shorter rural lines, this seems unlikely.

In closing, I would like to ask what would convince the anti-cuts letter-writers that they are wrong and privatisation has benefited rail passengers?

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