LONDON – Britain plans to bring the national rail network back under government control, reversing one of the most controversial elements of the privatization drive carried out by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and ’90s.
Under plans announced Thursday, the government will create a new entity known as Great British Railways that will own all railroad infrastructure, set most fares and schedules, collect ticket revenue and run a single ticketing website. Private companies will continue to operate trains under contracts with the state.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said the move would end “a quarter-century of fragmentation” that created a confusing, expensive patchwork of privately run rail franchises. That system was created after the railroads were privatized in the 1990s under former Prime Minister John Major who, like Johnson, led a Conservative Party government.
“I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve,” Johnson said in a statement.
The privatization of Britain’s railroads followed the sell off of other state-owned assets that began under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Major’s predecessor.
While the government continued to own infrastructure such as railroad tracks and stations, rail services were run by private companies under a series of regional franchises. That led to high prices, inefficiency and a series of embarrassing episodes in recent years when the rollout of new schedules left commuters stranded and frustrated by a shortage of trains.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem as passenger numbers plummeted, forcing the government to reexamine the franchise model.