21 January 2016

What a Surprise: Privatizing London's Rail System Failed

After decades of poor and inconsistent service, incomprehensible fares, higher costs, and a lack of investment in essential infrastructure, London is moving to re-privatize its commuter rail lines:
So, last week, the Centre for London think tank published a report called "Turning South London Orange", which argued that Transport for London (TfL) should take over all suburban rail services in the south of the capital.

This morning, the mayor of London Boris Johnson and the British government's transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, released a joint statement, saying, basically: Okay.

Wow, that happened fast.

Actually the statement goes rather further than that, mentioning services into six different rail terminals. They're only proposals at this stage - "views are being sought". Even if it does happen, TfL will only take control of different routes once the various franchise come up for renewal, so the change will take five years or more to take effect.

But this is nonetheless a remarkable statement of intent that the capital's rail network should be run by the capital's transport authorities. It's a big deal.


When a private rail franchise controls a route, its ultimate goal is to make money for its shareholders: running trains is the means, not the end.

By contrast, when TfL controls a route, its ultimate mission is to run lots of trains to help the city run smoothly. That's true even when TfL's role is contract management, and the actual trains are run by a private firm, as happens with the London Overground.

Some London train franchises have a history of cancelling train services at the drop of a hat, just because it's easier and cheaper than letting them run late. Maybe we're being utopian, but it's hard to imagine a TfL-run network doing the same. Even without investment, this would be a big change.
The author notes that this is odd, given that Boris Johnson only has a few more months in office, and explains why they are moving now:
The message here is the Conservatives can be trusted to back Londoners against any big businesses that might be making their lives hell. It's almost as if there's an election coming up.

It's true. Privatized rail is so sidely loathed that the even the bloody Adam Smith Institute, which describes itself as working to, "Promote libertarian and free market ideas through research, publishing, media commentary, and educational programmes," is cheering the return of publicly owned and operated rail:
Unleashing the private sector frequently does not deliver the promised results.

H/t Atrios.


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