LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's rail industry, privatised in the mid-1990s, is now back under state control -- in the eyes of the country's statistics agency.
Britain's Office for National Statistics said on Friday the scale of government intervention in the country's patchwork of train operators since the start of a national COVID-19 lockdown meant the firms would now count as part of the public sector.
The decision does not change the legal ownership of the franchises. But official statistics will now class rail staff as public-sector employees, and rail operators' borrowing will count towards Britain's 1.98 trillion pounds of public debt.
The ONS said it believed train companies' debts were quite low, and a more exact estimate would appear in official data as soon as possible.
Ticket sales collapsed in March after the government ordered people to avoid non-essential journeys to curb the spread of COVID-19, and the private-sector companies that bid for the right to run rail services in different parts of Britain have renegotiated their contracts.
"Under the emergency measures agreements, normal franchise mechanisms have been amended, transferring almost all revenue and cost risk to government," the ONS said.
Opinion polls show a majority of Britons want the rail industry to be renationalised.
Passenger numbers have more than doubled since privatisation but complaints are common about overcrowding and the cost and complexity of tickets, despite continued public subsidies.
Most British rail franchises are run by the commercial arms of state railway operators from Japan, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, or one of two British companies -- First Group <FGP.L> and Go-Ahead Group <GOG.L>.
Railway tracks are publicly owned, after the private company established to manage them collapsed in 2001.
The ONS said it would review the classification of rail operators after emergency arrangements expire.
(Reporting by David Milliken, Editing by Timothy Heritage)