Railways are seemingly always present in the headlines. A consistently contested issue, the Guardian’s Seamus Milne is one of many who view rail as “a gigantic scam for siphoning off public money”, but what brought us to this point? To commuters, the private railways are not the concern of the government, nor do they have their hand in the public purse. The truth, however, is a little different.
Since the inception of the railway in Britain, the companies that owned, operated and built them have worked in co-operation with the government of the day. The first intercity railway was the Manchester to Liverpool line, built in 1826. In order to link these hubs of northern industry, a contract was granted by the House of Commons and construction was carried out by private investors. From then until the eve of World War I, private companies laid down over 20,000 miles of track across Britain. The variety of different operators gave the passenger greater flexibility and choice, and the government had little need to exercise influence in this period.
In the aftermath of the war, the government didn’t have the time or resources to run an efficient network. Subsequently, it was divided up into the “big four” and as a result, the London, Midland and Scotland Railway Company became the largest stock held company in the Empire. The railway network wasn’t a nationalised institution, but it was a national institution and to the government a tool of national pride. Private initiative and competition continued to furnish the government’s requirement of British railways being the global standard. However, this situation wouldn’t last, as the consequences of the war once again brought about the nationalisation of the industry. The post-war rail network was in chaos and the government took total control. Nationalisation was completed in 1948, with British Rail as a board being formed in 1967.
Unlike other European countries, British post war government did not invest reparations money into the network, believing that roads were the future. This lack of investment created an uneven situation; some parts were profitable and others became composed of creaking stock and old track making British Rail untenable. The election of the Conservative government in 1979 paved the road once again for privatisation. During the 17 years of government British Rail was carved up and sold off bit by bit, although the actual railroad network was brought back under government control after the Hatfield crash. Given that operating franchises are doled out by the government, attracting varying levels of tax funded subsidy and courting controversy, it seems possible that renationalisation could occur again.