Alex Gabriel at Political Promise has a sort-of-rant about the trains. I’m not sure how accurate the figures are Alex uses but they sound about right…
If Arriva run the train you need and you’d rather travel with Virgin, tough. Unlike buying most other things, we don’t get to choose the superior brand. The companies aren’t really competing, either, because we have to travel with whichever one has trains at the right time. They might as well have the monopoly that the Conservatives promised they’d take from British Rail, because there’s no real choice of service involved: we board the train irrespective of how good or bad it is, or else we can’t make our journey.
The same applies to public transport in general. Fields, lakes and mountains surround my hometown, and when last I checked it cost £10 for the twenty minute journey to the next town. Long distance bus companies which compete for better prices will take you from Manchester to London for half that, but local companies – like rail firms – can be as exploitative as they like because people who use them have no choice.
They’re not accountable, efficient or cheap, but don’t the train companies at least strengthen the economy with their profits? Well, no. Salford University published a paper which found that in 2002-3, taxpayers paid subsidies of £1.34bn to prop up the rail industry. That’s right – we’re actually paying them to rip us off, and they wouldn’t be profitable if we didn’t.
When British Rail existed, it received £1.07bn of the same subsidies, so ironically train travel is more tax-funded now than then. National Rail even gets £20bn a year from general taxation to keep it going. The Thatcherites said not to fund unprofitable industries with public money, but that’s exactly the situation we’re in – except with all privatisation’s downsides and none of its benefits.
Sometimes there is no market and trying to create one just doesn’t work.