Train operators’ debts will appear on national balance sheets following emergency measures introduced in March, the UK’s official statistics body has announced.
The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) claimed the decision by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows Britain’s railways are in public ownership, but this was disputed by the industry.
All revenue and cost risks from train companies were transferred to the UK and Scottish Governments following the collapse in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
This has already cost taxpayers at least £3.5 billion.
An ONS review concluded that operators “should be classified to the public sector for statistical purposes”.
The Emergency Measures Agreements offered to rail firms last for six months, but taxpayer-funded support is expected to continue with passenger numbers much lower than when franchise agreements were signed.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We have taken unprecedented steps to protect our railway throughout the pandemic, using emergency measures to keep trains running for key workers, protect thousands of frontline jobs and ensure our railways stand ready to support our national recovery from Covid-19.
“Today’s decision simply reflects those temporary agreements.
“It will have no effect on passengers, staff, or the running of our railway, and we fully intend that private operators will continue to play a vital role in delivering better rail journeys.”
Paul Plummer, chief executive of industry body the Rail Delivery Group, said: “This is a temporary accounting change that reflects the extent of government involvement in running trains during a national emergency.
“The Covid crisis presents a chance to move towards a new way of running the railway where contracts put customers at the centre and the private sector’s track record of attracting people to travel by train in safety is harnessed to boost the economy, the environment and the public finances.”
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “The Office for National Statistics has candidly exposed the truth about our railways – they are now in public ownership.
“I know that telling the truth isn’t this Tory Government’s forte. However, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, must come clean and acknowledge that our railways are now in public ownership and take direct control of running them rather than continue to line the pockets of fleecing privateers with taxpayers’ money.”