Four months after Wales nationalised their rail services, Scotland has announced that it will nationalise it's railways, obviously this has been an outcome of the slump in passenger numbers due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Given that two major rail franchises in England, LNER and Northern, are already run by the government through its operator of last resort, and also that the Office of National Statistics has said a year ago that the rail service had been effectively nationalised due to treasury support, why doesn't the UK government simply nationalise the entire rail service, in effect doing in de jure, what it is doing in de facto?

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    Perhaps because they'd heard the old saying about those who fail to learn from history being doomed to repeat it? (Attributed to George Santayana, but the thought long predates him.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 17, 2021 at 23:27
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    @jamesqf: What relevance does that saying have to do with what I'm asking? Mar 17, 2021 at 23:37
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    If you have to ask, you appear not to have done any background research at all. The British DID nationalize the railways from 1948-97 (and earlier, in WWI) with lamentable effects. So why, other than an inability or unwillingness to learn from experience, would they do it again? See Paul Johnson's answer, though it appears from your comments there that you are arguing from ideology, not evidence.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 18, 2021 at 5:54
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    @Jamesqf: You don't appear to have done any background research. You're simply providing assertions with no evidence to back any of your assertions up. I'm British, after all, and I do read the papers. There has been plentiful complaints about how the railway service in the UK has been run sibce privatisayion. Given that the railways are de facto nationalised this simply goes to show the bankruptcy of privatisation in that sector. It seems you cannot take notice of the facts staring you in the face. Mar 18, 2021 at 6:43
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    Complaints are not a good metric, as anyone can complain. Better metrics are ridership, profitability vs amounts spent on subsidies, &c.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 18, 2021 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


There are a number of possible reasons. As with most motivation questions it is likely that they all apply to some degree.

  1. Ideology. The current government is the Conservative Party, which is on the political right and dedicated to free-market policies. Privatisation of the railways was originally a Conservative policy, so a policy of nationalisation would be embarrassing.

  2. Contrary to popular belief, the railways have done rather better since privatisation than before it. Nationalisation would seem to be a step backwards.

Graph of rail passenger numbers since 1840 (Graph from Wikipedia)

  1. The railways are heavily unionised. At present union disputes are the responsibility of the franchise holders. If the system were renationalised then union disputes would become the responsibility of the Department of Transport, and no Minister of Transport is going to volunteer for that.

  2. Also on the Union front, one of the vices of nationalised industries in the UK in the 1970s was that unions could demand higher pay, better conditions, and reject any form of efficiency improvement, safe in the knowledge that the government would subsidise the industry to cover the resulting costs. The result was spiralling costs combined with low quality services.

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    @Paul Johnson putting the graph out of context hides a small detail. The period when the service was nationalised was a period of restructuring and modernisation of the network and the trains, so the privatised services took advantage of the work previously done.
    – FluidCode
    Mar 17, 2021 at 22:32
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    I don't think its quite complete to say that the railways have done better because they had more passengers if that doesn't account for things like reliability of trains, or the growth in population that require trains.
    – MegaCrow
    Mar 18, 2021 at 4:32
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    Comments are not for extended discussion. The question was "why" and I've answered the question with some reasonable speculations about what the Government is thinking. If you disagree with the reasoning, take it up with the Government. Mar 18, 2021 at 8:12

Taking into account the old say Privatize profits, socialize losses, I suspect that the current owners still were not able to fill the balance sheets with all the debts they want to get rid of.

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