Thursday 18 July 2019 7:00 am

DEBATE: Would the railways run better with a ‘fat controller’?

Scott Corfe is research director at the Social Market Foundation.
and Andrew Pendleton
Andrew Pendleton is director of policy and advocacy at the New Economics Foundation.

Would the railways run better with an independent “fat controller” in charge, as recently proposed?

Scott Corfe, research director at the Social Market Foundation, says YES.

Commuters are right to be angry with the state of Britain’s railway network, with its unpalatable combination of high fares, delays, and trains so packed that one feels like a canned sardine. 

We seem to be paying significantly more each year for a deteriorating service, with train punctuality at a 13-year low in 2018. 

Understandably given this, there is a great deal of sympathy for the railways to be renationalised. But this would be the wrong solution to the problem. 

Under nationalisation, rail fares risk becoming a political weapon, frozen ahead of General Elections and leaving taxpayers  to pick up the shortfall. Further, with government under pressure to spend money elsewhere, rail investment risks being overlooked.

Rather than nationalisation, what we need is a much better regulated private industry. A new, independent “fat controller” figure, overseeing the rail network, should manage a tougher regime – doing more to hold underperforming train operators to account and ensuring that fares are fair.   

Read more: Culture secretary says “I have no ambition to become the fat controller of the BBC”

Andrew Pendleton, director of policy and advocacy at the New Economics Foundation, says NO.

Keith Williams, chair of the Rail Review’s expert challenge panel, is proposing the opposite of what is needed. 

To get to grips with the chronic fragmentation and poor services on our railways, and to decarbonise, we need an overarching rail strategy, linked to a wider national transport strategy. 

Only the state can take this view, but without control of the levers, it’s hard to see how rail and other public transport can be truly integrated and given strategic direction. 

This need not be the central state – the great growth in rail journeys has been caused by commuting in and out of cities, so it makes sense for integrated transport strategies to be regional. 

And, as with other public services, the state needs to be open to scrutiny, especially from those who use, work or depend on railways. 

Our railways should be in public hands, run for public good, and guided and scrutinised by passengers, unions and rail workers – not a bureaucrat or company shill, fat or otherwise.

Main image credit: Robert Cianflone / Getty Images

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