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More recently, the international trend has been towards privatization. In some areas, notably Great Britain, resultant problems with track maintenance have led back to a more mixed solution, with a nationalised infrastructure operator but privately run train operating companies.
National characteristics influenced the structures under which countries' rail networks developed. Some national railways were always under direct State management, some were State-planned but privately operated (as in France), others were wholly private enterprises lightly regulated (as in Great Britain, Ireland and Spain). Nationalization was therefore a bolder step to take in some countries than in others. While ideology has played a role, so too has the need for systematic reconstruction of vital infrastructure devastated by war, often following a period of State control over private companies initiated during the conflict.
The Argentine railways developed with private British, Argentine and French capital and were nationalised by the state in 1948 during President Juan Perón's first term of office and merged into the existing state-owned railways. In the 1990s, following Carlos Menem's neoliberal reforms, services were privatised through concession with infrastructure still belonging to the state. After a series of high-profile accidents and serious deterioration of services under privatisation, most rail lines have returned to state control by 2015, in effect re-nationalising them.
In Canada, the government took control of several railways that fell into bankruptcy following World War I, including the Canadian Northern Railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and the Grand Trunk Railway. On December 20, 1918, the federal government created the Canadian National Railways (CNR), and placed the companies that it took control of under the CNR. Canadian National Railway was privatized in 1995.
In 1878, the French government took over ten small failing railway companies and established the Chemin de fer de l'État. The company absorbed the Chemins de Fer de l'Ouest in 1908. In 1938, the French state took 51% ownership of the newly formed SNCF merging of France's five main railways (100% in 1982).
The earliest railways in the German states were often run by private entrepreneurs. Starting in the late 19th century, the railways were recognised as important to the military, and operation often was taken over by the state, especially in Prussia and Bavaria. After World War I, the German Reich took over control of the state railways of Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, Baden, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Hesse and Oldenburg. The individual railways were merged into the Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft in February 1924. Due to impending war reparations, the DRG was a private company, but shares were bought by the Reich in 1937, effectively nationalizing the corporation. In World War II the DR assimilated a great number of railway companies in the German-occupied territories as well as several smaller, previously privately owned lines in Germany. Post-World War II, after being under Allied administration between 1945 and 1949, the DR was split up into the Deutsche Bundesbahn and Deutsche Reichsbahn of the GDR, both state-owned. Private railways continued to exist in the West German realm of the DB, but DB and DR accounted for most of the rail traffic in post-war Germany. After German reunification, DB and DR became Deutsche Bahn AG in 1994. Whilst DB AG is a public limited company, all its shares are presently owned by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany. DB AG is now facing stiff competition in the freight and short-distance passenger sector (the latter of which is subject to franchising), although they still hold a quasi-monopoly in the long-distance passenger sector (which does not receive subsidies), which was starting to crack until the opening of the long distance bus market destroyed the business case of any open access competition. The IPO, originally planned for 2008, has been postponed indefinitely and is currently not on the agenda of any major political party.
Indian Railways has been state owned since 1950.
In the Republic of Ireland, Córas Iompair Éireann was formed from the merger of the Great Southern Railways with the Dublin United Transport Company on 1 January 1945. Initially a private company limited by shares, CIÉ was nationalized in 1950. The final privately owned mainline railway company on the island, the Great Northern Railway, was nationalized under joint control of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland governments in 1953. It was wound up in 1958 and its assets split between CIÉ and the UTA.
Railways in both parts of Ireland remain nationalized under CIÉ, and the UTA's successor, the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company. Operations have now been delegated to railway operating subsidiaries of both bodies - Iarnród Éireann - Irish Rail in the Republic, and Northern Ireland Railways Company Limited in Northern Ireland. Together, they run the Dublin - Belfast railway line as Enterprise.
Following unification, the Italian Government entrusted the railways to five regional concessionaires. The arrangement did not work well and, long before it was due to expire, the railways were nationalized in 1905. The nationalized operator is known as Ferrovie dello Stato. Italy has an open access high-speed rail operator competing against the national railway; Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori which is part owned by SNCF and private investors.
In Japan, the Railway Nationalization Act of 1906 brought most of the country's private railway lines under public control. Between 1906 and 1907, 2,812 miles (4,525 km) of track were purchased from seventeen private railway companies. The national railway network grew to about 4,400 miles (7,100 km) of track, and private railways were relegated to providing local and regional services. In the 1980s the process of privatizing Japanese National Railways begun that is not entirely finished as of 2016 with both entirely state and private members of the JR Group.
After years of declining profitability, the national rail network was devastated by the Spanish Civil War. In 1941, the broad gauge railways were nationalized, as RENFE. The narrow gauge railways were also later nationalized; some of these have since been transferred to the autonomous regional governments where contained within a single region. The standard gauge high-speed lines were built as a state owned venture from the start.
In 1914, the railways were taken into Government control due to World War I, but were returned to the original owners in 1921, three years after the war had ended. However, in that same year, the government introduced the Railways Act 1921. This forced the 120 railway companies then operating to merge into just four. This grouping officially took place on 1 January 1923. The four railway companies formed from the grouping were: The Great Western Railway, the Southern Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. In Britain during World War II, the railways were taken into State control. They were heavily damaged by enemy attacks and were run down aiding the war effort. After the war, the Transport Act 1947 provided for nationalizing the four major railways. On January 1, 1948, the railways were nationalized and British Railways was created, under the overall management of the British Transport Commission, later the British Railways Board.
British Rail was privatised between 1994 and 1997, involving the transfer to a series of private-sector operators of responsibility for the provision of services under contract. In all, more than 100 companies took over from British Rail. In 2001 the track operator Railtrack plc went bankrupt; it was reconstituted and renamed as Network Rail, a private company with no legal owner but effectively government-controlled via its constitution and financing. The United Kingdom government continues to invest in the railways, financing, for example, the acquisition of some InterCity rolling stock.
The positive impact of privatization is disputed, with passengers numbers more than doubling (see graph) and increasing customer satisfaction balanced with worries about the level of rail subsidies and criticism of the fact that much of the system is now contracted out to subsidiaries owned by the state owned railways of France, Germany and the Netherlands.
Only 20% of Southern trains arrived on time in the year from April 2015 to March 2016, and there was an ongoing industrial dispute over driver-only operated trains. In June 2016, amongst criticism of the performance of its services, Go-Ahead warned of lower than anticipated profits on its Govia Thameslink Railway franchises, leading to 18% drop in the Go-Ahead share price.
Railways in Northern Ireland were nationalized in the 1940s under the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA). The former LMS lines managed by the Northern Counties Committee, nationalized by the Westminster government, were sold to the UTA by the British Transport Commission in 1949. Unlike British Rail, the Northern Ireland Railways remain state owned.
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the country's railways proved inadequate to the task of supplying the nation's war effort. On December 26, 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson nationalized most American railways under the Federal Possession and Control Act, creating the United States Railroad Administration (USRA), which took control of the railways on December 28, 1917. The USRA introduced several reforms to increase efficiency and reduce costs, including standardizing rolling stock and steam locomotive designs. The war ended in 1918, and on March 1, 1920, the railways were handed back to their original owners. Freight operations and most of the track remain private enterprises but passenger operations were transferred to the de facto federally owned Amtrak under President Nixon. Amtrak subsequently bought some tracks from bankrupt railways as well as Conrail.
- Verordnung über die Schaffung eines Unternehmens "Deutsche Reichsbahn" vom 12. Februar 1924, RGBl. I Nr. 10, February 14, 1924, p. 57
- "GB rail: Dataset on financial and operational performance 1997–98 – 2012-13" (PDF).
- "Revealed: How the world gets rich- from privatising British public services". The Independent. 20 November 2015. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
- Joseph Watts (17 June 2016). "Govia Thameslink Railway boss refuses to defend CEO £2m pay". Evening Standard. London. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
- Craig Richard (17 June 2016). "Boss of Epsom's main train operator Govia Thameslink Railway takes home £2.1m paycheck despite "appalling service"". Your Local Guardian. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
- "Thameslink woes hit Go-Ahead shares". BBC News. 14 June 2016. Retrieved 20 June 2016.