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British freight trains averaged 22½ mph in 1973 - that’s slower than Usain Bolt.
Entire books have been written on the cause of this failure, but overmanning was a consistent theme. This problem got worse in the 1970s, when the nationalised industries were used as a job-protection tool, rather than being run on a more commercial basis, as they often were previously. The power of the trade unions exacerbated this problem.
The nationalised industries also had a habit of investing in the wrong technology, and then sticking with their decision because of a short-termist approach to costs. The British nuclear industry famously chose the flawed Advanced Gas Reactor design, and on a smaller scale British Rail chose to invest in the wrong sort of brakes in the 1950s, leaving the country was decades behind in the use of power brakes.
The result was that British freight trains averaged 22½ mph in 1973 – that’s slower than Usain Bolt. Naturally, this was not ideal for British industry. Elsewhere, British Telecom maintained the crowdbar switch whilst other countries moved to semi-electronic and electronic switched. The idea of organisations that functioned in this way having the speed and flexibility to cope in today’s high competitive world economy seems absurd.
Defenders of nationalisation will point out that the worst failures were during the late 1970s, and this reflects wider problems in the British economy. They may also argue that many of the more successful foreign operations referred to above were also nationalised – and that the British experience of nationalised industries was uniquely bad.
This should make us uniquely determined not to repeat it, but it also suggests that, in principle, nationalised industries can be run better. It’s worth noting that semi-nationalised companies such as EDF and France Telecom do compete successfully in the global economy. However, they also seem to exist within a wider economy that is not successful, suggesting perhaps that the domestic French economy is subsidising individual corporate success – which is doesn’t seem to be to the benefit of the people of France.