Renationalise the railways?
A question to which the answer is yes.
My fellow New Statesman columnist - and the new professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University - Will Self put in a typically brilliant performance on BBC1's Question Time last night, especially on the subject of rail privatisation.
He interrupted a rambling answer from fellow QT panellist and Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickes to say:
I merely seek to observe that the [rail] subsidy was £1 billion before [when] they were nationalised, in real terms, and it's now £4 billion.
The fundamental mistake - and there were many mistakes about the privatisation of the rail system - but the most fundamental mistake was rail travel, your journey to work, is not a fungible good and that means it cannot be exchanged for anything else. You can't get to Guildford station and think: 'Oh I went go to work in London today. I'll go to Mars on this new rocket train that's been provided by this splendid private company'.
It was a ludicrous idea from the get-go and the particular way that they did it with the track hived off from the rail operators has caused absolute chaos, some dreadful crashes and the current predicament that you find yourselves in.
"So what would you do?" asked Pickles. Self replied, to huge applause from the Surrey audience:
I'd renationalise it.
The 16-year rail privatisation experiment has been an utter disaster. Above-inflation increases in UK train fares - that are now the highest in western Europe - make it more and more unpopular as time goes by. Tory ministers, their cheerleaders in the right-wing press and their Blairite fellow-travellers in the Labour Party often forget - or choose to ignore! - that there is a clear majority in favour of renationalisation of the railways - on the left and the right. The inconvenient truth for ministers is that the likes of Bob Crow - and Will Self! - are more in touch with voters than they are. And the recent row over multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded Network Rail bonuses - which were eventually and reluctantly waived by Network Rail bosses after public outcry - didn't do the privatisation cause much good. It was another reminder of how messed up the system is.
In fact, as transport expert Christian Wolmar wrote back in October 2008, a month after the start of the financial crisis:
[W]hat New Labour refuses to let on is that the railways are effectively largely publicly-owned anyway. Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure, is a company without shareholders that is dependent on government backed debt (to the tune of £20bn), for its survival. It receives billions in annual grants direct from government and is, to all intents and purposes, a state-run enterprise.
Wolmar also pointed out that with Network Rail already in public hands, it would cost little or nothing to "renationalise them", once the train operators decided to hand back their franchises when their terms expired or once they got into financial difficulties.
This isn't just an ideological or political argument; it's financial. A recent study by the Transport for Quality of Life thinktank found that renationalisation could save the taxpayer £1.2 billion a year "through cheaper borrowing costs, removing shareholders' dividends and reducing fragmentation". £300 million alone, said the study, would be saved if train operating companies were taken into public ownership.
It's a no-brainer: the time has come to renationalise the railways. It would be a popular, effective and money-saving move in our current "age of austerity". Ed Miliband and Maria Eagle - are you listening?