Posted 10th July 2020 | 4 Comments

Office of National Statistics may ‘renationalise’ train operators

Updated 13.00

THE debts of train operating companies may be moved to the public sector balance sheet, effectively ‘renationalising’ the businesses, following the introduction of emergency support by the Department for Transport on 23 March as lockdown took hold.

All DfT franchises have become management contracts under ‘EMAs’ (emergency measures agreements), with all costs being met by the DfT and revenue also going to the Department. The franchise owners receive a management fee of no more than 2 per cent, and this will continue until 20 September at least.

As a result, the Office of National Statistics has now launched a review to see whether the companies’ debts should still be included in the private sector figures.

It said: ‘Alongside transferring the financial risk to government, EMAs also imposed some obligations on the private train operating companies, in what is already a highly regulated industry. The ONS is therefore assessing if these new procedures should affect the statistical classification of the train operating companies within the UK national accounts.’

The ONS added that the result of its review will be revealed ‘as soon as possible’.

Rail Delivery Group chief executive Paul Plummer said: ‘The prospect of reclassification underscores the need for a fundamental reset of the relationship between the public and private sectors in rail, something we have long been calling for and which the Williams review, yet to report, was set up to deliver.

‘Government has an opportunity to accelerate the drive to a renewed system as it considers what replaces EMAs. To ensure passenger numbers recover as quickly as possible, which is good for taxpayers, the economy and the environment, new contracts must lock in incentives for the private sector to grow revenue and run the railway safely and efficiently, while also enabling further reform.’

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    Just to respond re. ways of introducing hidden costs and benefits into the intercity / long distance market, so that private sector competition , innovation and access to investment capital can live alongside a structure of state subsidies and charges.

    Perhaps the government can't "buck the market", but it can participate in it, and influence it. Instead of negotiating individual subsidy or premium franchise / concession agreements, it can offer standard subsidies to all competing operators in return for particular things they give to society, as part of the framework in which they work. Similarly a standard set of charges would be used to defray costs imposed on society.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    I rather think that the lack of profitability mentioned by Sim is largely derived from a narrow definition of costs and benefits. If "hidden"costs and benefits (what economists call "externalities") were to be taken into account, many passenger operations would be likely to show a positive return.

    If we could persuade government to monetise such factors as environmental and social ( not an exhaustive list) externalities and to inject these into the transport market, as charges and subsidies , giving needed incentives to operators, it would seem preferable to the current "command and control" means of regulation .

    [I quite agree that the benefits of rail go way beyond simple cash profit. Certainly if there were no railways we would have to offset the cost to the national economy, road congestion and casualties, pollution and so on. But if you try to take into account the 'hidden' benefits when considering operators' income, and pay accordingly (very difficult to calculate) then it would look as if private sector, non-franchised operators were being subsidised. That is having your cake and eating it! Those who oppose your views will say that such payments might as well go to a state system, or at least a government contractor holding a formal concession. Also, since there is no pain without gain, any government making such payments would also want a significant measure of control. You could call them franchises -- but we've tried that, haven't we?--Ed.]

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    In danger of repeating past comments , it seems to me that passenger operations are quite diverse, and need different approaches . Rather than "one size fits all ", we need " horses for courses".

    The two main types of service could be described as Intercity / longer distance, and Local / commuter. Possibly a third is Rural. The first of these is amenable to on - rail competition and is potentially a good business proposition, On - rail competition could provide accountability. Commuter and local service, though, has a captive market, and so needs a form of public ownership, which could involve direct democracy - something that isn't feasible on the national scale. Rural service might look to a "local rail partnership "model.

    This "three specialist modes" structure might well be criticised as "fragmentation", but it appears that BR's Sectorisation policy over its last few years was widely seen as a success.* The only real difference with the proposal above is that we can now put each mode in private or public hands,as is most appropriate in each case.
    [*A misleading impression, I'm afraid, at least financially speaking. None of the BR passenger sectors were genuinely profitable, as was proved at privatisation when every one of the new franchises, with the exception of the small and specialised Gatwick Express, needed subsidy from the outset. No intercity franchise has been profitable over the past few years, either, except for the couple of per cent which is allowed to franchise holders in their business plans. Open access operators survive because like Gatwick Express they are small and specialised, and can cherry pick the best flows. On a small scale it just about works, but not if you are seeking comprehensive timetables which operate all day and much of the night.--Ed.]

  • Michael, Reading, Berks, EU

    The cv19 has given the railways a much needed short sharp Break from the ATOCs. The same as when the ECML was in govt hands... each of the current franchises should be terminated. We ... the government could finally realise Rail is far more beneficial to people and environment than all other forms of transport (other than walking and bicycle).
    Each of the current franchised sections of the old BR could easily remain as separate entities and as 'share holder LTD' entities. HM Gov would simply own 100% of the shares. Using this model, the railways would continue to access the capital funds markets plus have as much as is required from the government borrowing, grants and tax coffers. Fares could be properly subsidised to reduce to a more European Average of about Ten Percent of current fares!
    HS2, HS3, HS4ir (CDG/AMS - channel tunnel - Ashford - LGW - LHR - BHX - MCR - etc etc - to GLA/EDI and Inverness) connecting all the major airports from Inverness to New Quay and over/under three routes to/from Ireland.
    HS5, 6, 7.... 50+ = no two points anywhere on the Islands of Britain and Ireland to be more than TWO hours apart.
    Building on pylons/stilts - copy the Chinese method as they have built over 30,000km of HSR in under 10 years. We can do it in a few decades (lol)...
    By lifting the railway to pylons 15+ metres above ground level, the railways can be Straight and Flat. By the time this HSR Network would be completed, the steel on steel trainsets will be in common operation at speeds in excess of 450 to 500+ kph
    The 1990s tory privatisation in response to the court findings of the 1988 Clapham Crash... has been an utter disaster. Passing the responsibility to Update and Upgrade the infrastructure can not simply be just given/sold to ATOCs. Two percent... if invested in current infrastructure would have had the full GWR electrified. Not the truncated, limited route with a couple of spurs. The equipment for installing OHLE should be Owned or long term leased and never stops. Once one line has OHLE, it is move to the Next line, and next line, and next line. We could be 100% OHLE (including the removal of third rail DC) in under a decade - IF they had not just erected A to B then Stopped.
    Fact is with near zero interest rate levels. Any amount can be borrowed as should have been done in 2010 instead of a wasted decade of 'faux austerity'... and when borrowed... just Park the debt, pay the minimal interest or sell it as bonds to be paid in 50, 75, 100 years.
    UK was bankrupt by ww2. The IMF had to be created to loan the Unheard of Massive amount of £250 million. If it had been parked until today, it is pocket change to Individuals... and Nothing to government finances.
    Leaving the debt for the grandchildren = they will get more daily Pocket Money than the amounts that could potentially be borrowed today.