Could the railways be run as a social enterprise?

As the debate over nationalising the railways continues, one policy expert has suggested the system could work best as one huge social enterprise. 

Any discussion about train fares, delays and crowded carriages these days quickly turns to the merits of re-nationalising the railways.

But a policy wonk at the umbrella body for social enterprises in Scotland has a bold and radical idea: let the railways be run as a social enterprise – a not-for-profit, independent business with a social mission.

Duncan Thorp, policy officer for Social Enterprise Scotland, said it’s time for “some imagination” in a debate dominated by the “hamster wheel” of privatisation versus the state.

Now is the right time to build a social enterprise rail service for Scotland – and indeed right across the UK,” Thorp suggested, explaining that “a new, national social enterprise, owned by the community – by the people…would have strong public support, a vote-winner for any political party.”

The company should be democratic, a business managed by employees, with elected directors, getting rid of top-down centralisation

While the currently privatised system has its frustrating absurdities – in Scotland, the trains are run by a Dutch government company, with profits going back to Dutch public coffers – Thorp said the old British Rail set-up had its flaws too, suffering from a centralised, top-down inflexibility.

Thorp said a social enterprise rail service need not necessarily suffer from these drawbacks. “(It) would mean rail passengers on the company board and no private shareholders,” he explained. “The company should be democratic, a business managed by employees, with elected directors, getting rid of top-down centralisation.”

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Transport expert Christian Wolmar, a previous Labour candidate for London Mayor, is keen on the idea of a new way of nationalising the railways without returning to the British Rail model.

He has suggested a co-operative structure would be the best, an idea also floated by the Co-operative Party.

Paul Salveson, a visiting professor in transport at the University of Huddersfield, has previously called for the railways to be run in the “tradition of co-operation, community, mutuality and decentralisation,” that many social enterprises across the UK have tapped into.

The above article by Adam Forrest first published on in Jun, 2017.