The Williams report was commissioned after a catastrophically botched timetable change last summer led to nearly half the trains in northern England being delayed or cancelled. The incident exemplified how the railways, which made much progress after being privatised in the early 1990s, have gone off-track. Last year delays and cancellations reached their worst level in nearly a decade. At the same time passenger numbers fell by 1.4%, the first dip since privatisation. Amid all this, passengers are paying more. Ticket prices have risen twice as fast as wages since 2010.
When Britain broke up and sold British Rail, the state-run monopoly, it hoped to spur competition and cut costs. With this aim it embarked on a radical experiment, tried before only in Sweden, of separating the management of the tracks from that of the trains. Politicians feared that chaos could ensue, and some politically sensitive lines could close, if the system went from rigid state monopoly to free-market free for-all overnight. So they introduced a system of franchises, in which companies could bid for the right to operate specified services, to ensure continuity and allow for the subsidising of loss-making services.
The opposition Labour Party, which came to back privatisation in the 1990s, wants to renationalise the network. Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, argues that privatisation has left “a fragmented and inefficient network that drives up costs”, and says the answer is for a single state-owned firm to run both trains and track. Most voters seem to agree. A poll last year by BMG Research found that 64% support nationalisation. (The same is not necessarily true of rail-users, notes Anthony Smith of Transport Focus, a watchdog. It finds that passengers care more about having a reliable service than who runs it.)