Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Unionists and the railways

Having one of my infrequent clear-outs of back issues of periodicals, I came across an article in Private Eye which is relevant now that nationalisation of the railways is back on the agenda. Under the heading "UUP against it", the Eye's regular railway correspondent wrote, in the aftermath of the 2017 Foster/May deal, of an earlier concession wrung out of a Conservative prime minister by Unionists.

John Major's government had a small majority when it privatised British Rail in the 1990s. Some Tory MPs feared an electoral backlash if private franchisees foisted big fare rises or other headaches on commuters. (As it happens, since then the Tories have failed to win a majority in five out of six general elections.) But Ulster Unionist Party MPs agreed to vote for rail privatisation on condition that Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) would not be privatised.

Reportedly, the Unionists feared
a privatised NIR could fall into the hands of a foreign government, specifically the Republic of Ireland's. That looks prescient now that most mainland rail franchises are owned or part-owned by foreign governments. Now the mainland's 'national rail' system gets almost twice as much 'government support' pro rata (12p per passenger mile in 2015-16 on average) as NIR (6.3p per passenger mile in 2016-17).

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