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Lunch with Leon: Will Whitehorn’s take on how renationalising UK rail halts progress and innovation


Will Whitehorn’s unique insights into the world of transport were fully explored in his conversation on the Lunch with Leon podcast, revealing home truths about the UK’s rail system and where it all may have gone wrong.

The former CEO of Virgin Galactic spoke to Leon about the “tragedy” of renationalisation of rail - particularly pertinent given the Labour Party’s promise to renationalise nearly all passenger rail services within five years if it wins the next election.

 

In this intriguing conversation, Leon pointed out that these days, the pendulum is swinging back in favour of more state control, public money and central planning, which creates a strained connection between the private and public sectors.  

 

“British Airways has moved from being state-owned and travelling within the Commonwealth to being a straightforward retailer,” Leon said.

 

“Isn’t it interesting that British Airways made the jump to being a retailer while public transport in the UK kept one foot in the utilities camp and is now being dragged out by both feet as a public service. I often think that if public transport had properly become a retailer, then we wouldn’t be seeing what we’re seeing now.”

 

This sentiment sparked a passionate response in Will, someone who has been at the forefront of transport innovation and success for decades. He lamented the “managed decline” of Britain’s railway system, akin to his early days at British Rail with dwindling passenger numbers.

 

The success of Virgin's West Coast Mainline demonstrates how incentive for profitability can drive major upgrades and a surge in passengers, but this progress was lost because the franchise contracts the government had with train operators were not flexible enough.

 

“The tragedy with rail being renationalised is there is no innovation,” Will said.

His argument is that enterprises are better managed in a mixed economy that responds to market signals, rather than being completely controlled by central planning from the government. Even if a business is state-owned, it will perform better if it operates based on market forces and profit incentives, rather than just following dictates from the central government.

As he continued, “Scotland’s rail network has been almost completely nationalised by the SNP, and there is no improvement whatsoever. Instead, there is decline, a cut in the number of services, trains running late and worse service for the passenger.”

“Before the impact of COVID, we'd already begun a slippery slope where the state took back control removing any profit incentive for operators to operate anymore. The railways were going somewhere positive for a while but have slipped back into mediocrity.”

Listen to the full conversation on the Lunch with Leon podcast on Apple , Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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