Writing as founder and coordinator of Bring Back British Rail, Harrison reflects on the last seven years’ campaigning for the public ownership of our railways in this preface for the campaign’s first report, launched in the Houses of Parliament in London on 13 October 2016. (Word count: 663)

It gives me great pleasure, after seven years of volunteer campaigning in which trains have totally taken over every spare moment of my life, to publish this: Bring Back British Rail’s first report.

It was summer 2009, fifteen years after the ill-fated 1993 Railways Act came into force on April Fools’ Day 1994, that I founded the campaign. I was (and I still am) a ‘pissed-off passenger’ pushed over the edge. With no specialist knowledge of rail policy at that time, I could tell from my own deeply frustrating experiences of trying to buy affordable tickets and interchange between the myriad different private Train Operating Companies (none of whom seemed prepared to take responsibility for problems and delays), that something was seriously wrong. Only a radical re-think of the whole system would suffice.

Bring Back British Rail became a battle cry. It chimed with so many other disgruntled rail passengers and disheartened train employees, who wanted to see a re-unified national rail network run in their interests.

That autumn, through the campaign’s booming social media network, I met Oliver Lewis, the author of this report. Unlike me, he was from a conservative background; a young economics graduate and historian who specialised in rail policy. Despite our different perspectives, we formed a partnership and, since then, have worked together relentlessly to force the re-nationalisation of our railways onto the mainstream political agenda – not for ideological reasons, but as the only commonsense solution to the inefficient and unaffordable mess that privatisation has created.

As Bring Back British Rail’s online network has grown to what is now more than 150,000 supporters,1 we have been able to give a voice to the majority of British citizens,2 who, like us, want to see our whole national rail network brought back into public hands. Some of the 10,000+ supporters’ comments now archived on our website are quoted throughout this report (see p.8, p.18, p.24, p.28, p.35 and p.41).3

In 2012, we were joined in our fight by other better-resourced campaigns: We Own It and the unions’ Action for Rail. Their Rebuilding Rail report written by Transport for Quality of Life, and The Great Train Robbery (2014) written by a University of Manchester research team, provided all the facts we needed to back up our heartfelt demands.

It became totally clear that privatisation is failing everyone: taxpayers and passengers. For example:

  • Our railways now cost 2-3 times more in public subsidies each year than they did as British Rail.4
  • And yet, despite this, train fares have risen 24% above inflation, since the 1990s.5

Bring Back British Rail continues to collaborate with these organisations. However, we have ensured we retain our autonomy. Only we – a volunteer-run campaign founded and funded by ordinary passengers – have the real freedom to speak truth to power.

Not wanting to duplicate the powerful research that’s already been done, our report fills in some of the important history of our railways. Focusing on the innovative structure British Rail adopted in the 1980s to maximise its efficiency in the years before it was broken up and sold for £ billions less than its actual value (see p.2), it dispels all the myths that a publicly-owned national rail operator was an unwieldy and expensive beast.

This lost history of innovation in the public sector, in addition to the more recent success of the publicly-run East Coast (see p.4), provides vital evidence that public ownership can be our future, not just the past.

We cannot afford to take a piecemeal ‘franchise by franchise’ approach. Given that the inefficiencies of a fractured, privatised railway network are wasting £1.2 billion a year,6 the deeply flawed rail franchising process (which itself costs £45 million per ‘competition’)7 must be abolished without delay.

It is only re-unification; re-aligning all parties’ interests under public ownership, which is going to achieve what we want – a comprehensive national rail service, which we can all afford to use and can start to take pride in once again.


Photo: Robin Prime