Railway privatisation and the possible renationalisation has been in the news a lot lately. But there is one unexpected consequence of privatisation that doesn’t get talked about and few if any saw coming; the strange disappearance of the Road Lobby.
Back in the days of British Rail there was an organised lobby that consistently opposed investment in rail, and even lobbied for closures. In the 1980s British Rail even had to devote time and energy fending off politically-connected cranks who wanted to tarmac over the rail network to convert them into roads.
There were many components of the Road Lobby. There were the big construction companies who profited from road-building and therefore lobbied for investment in roads at the expense of rail, most of them big donors to The Tories. There were the bus and coach companies, and the road haulage industry. There were the unions in the motor industry, who at that time outnumbered the rail unions and had the bigger influence over Labour policies. Finally there was the civil service at the department of transport. Planning and managing road investments employed many, many civil servants. In contrast very few of them had anything to do with the railways; British Rail had its own management. So a career civil servant had the natural incentive to favour road over rail.
With privatisation much of that changed. Nowadays big railway investment projects involve the same construction companies that had previously built roads, and no longer have any incentive to lobby against rail. Many of the privatised train operators are also major bus operators, and they see their train and bus operations as complementary rather than as competition. And perhaps most importantly the civil service now has a far bigger role, managing procurement and long-term investment, taking the strategic role that used to belong to British Rail’s management. The whole IEP saga suggests they’re not as good at the job as British Rail used to be, but at least they’re not actively opposing rail investment.
Yes, it’s true that privatisation and the resultant fragmentation have added layers of overheads and made the railway as a whole more expensive to operate. But the resultant defanging of the railway’s old enemy, the Road Lobby, shouldn’t be overlooked.