Privatization of railways in Britain has been a disaster. So disastrous that the Labour Party had promised to nationalize the rail industry in five years during the just concluded election.
That wouldn’t have happened immediately because train operators work under contract with the government, which maintains control of tracks and stations. Once those contracts expired, those operations would have gone back into public hands. Labour’s manifesto also called for nationalizing water, energy and the postal service. But re-nationalizing the railways would have had particularly symbolic meaning along with the concrete benefit of better service and lower fares.
Naturally, the Conservative Party would have none of this. But the Covid-19 virus has upended previous ideological certainty. Boris Johnson’s Tory government has announced a back-door nationalization of the railways, albeit one seemingly intended to be temporary. The Department of Transport said on March 23 it would suspend existing franchise agreements and assume all revenue and risk for six months. The government said it is taking these measures to minimize disruption to the industry and safeguard jobs.
A steep decline in ridership resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and strict shelter-in-place orders prompted the action. So it is not saving the jobs of working-class Britons — a group the Tories hardly have a history of caring about — but rather saving the companies operating the privatized railways that is the motivation here. Nonetheless, it is an irony that brings a smile to our faces that the Tories have done an abrupt about-face when it comes to nationalization.
Of course, not all blame for privatization can be laid at the feet of the Tories. Tony Blair was an unyielding proponent of “public-private partnerships,” known as “private finance initiatives” in Britain. Under these, governments sell off a public asset and lease it back.