A train passing through fields in Wales

On February 7, the Welsh Government brought the Wales and Borders rail franchise into public ownership. The move comes after the franchise was rocked by coronavirus, with far fewer passengers using the trains.

In April 2020, it was reported that Transport for Wales services had experienced a 95 per cent drop in passengers. Between April and June 2020, just 368,000 journeys were taken on Transport for Wales services. That was down from 8.5 million the previous year.

Speaking on the announcement, Wales’ minister for economy, transport and North Wales Ken Skates said the move would see the railway utilised for “the public good”.

These sentiments were echoed by Wales Green Party leader Anthony Slaughter. Slaughter told Bright Green that bringing railways into public ownership should be the “first step” in ensuring the network meets the “needs of Wales in the 21st century”. He said:

We have always argued that railways belong in public hands so we welcome this decision by the Welsh Government to finally put passenger needs before the profit of unaccountable private companies.

We recognise that the pandemic has impacted heavily on the rail sector, but franchise holders have a history of providing an inadequate and costly service to Wales. Taking the railways back into public hands must be the first step towards creating a national railway service fit to meet the needs of Wales in the 21st Century.

While the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated pressures on Britain’s privatised railways, rail franchises were facing significant problems prior to the pandemic. After years of disruption, the UK government brought the Northern Rail franchise into public ownership at the start of 2020. This followed the government being forced to do the same with the East Coast Line which had consistently failed in private hands.

The Green Party of England and Wales has long called for the country’s railways to be returned to public ownership, frequently making the policy a plank of its election campaigns. The Scottish Green Party’s recent report – Rail for Allalso called for the whole of Scotland’s railways – both track and train – to be brought into public ownership. The Scottish Greens’ position has been backed by rail union the TSSA.

Public support for bringing the railways into public ownership remains high. According to a poll conducted by Survation in 2019, 64 per cent of people want to see the railways taken into public hands.

The privatisation of the railways took place under John Major’s premiership, with the Railways Act coming into effect in 1994. Rail privatisation in Wales began six years prior with the sell off of Vale of Rheidol Railway.

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Image credit: Jeff Buck – Creative Commons