This article accounts for the British experiment with rail privatisation and how it has worked out economically and politically. The focus is not simply on profitability and public subsidy, but on the appearances which accounting arrangements create. The article scrutinises the Network Rail subsidy regime, which enables train operators to achieve fictitious profitability without increased direct state support. This enables supporters of privatisation to claim train operators produce a net gain for the British taxpayer. The claim forms the heart of a trade narrative which is employed by the industry and their political backers to deflect criticism and stymy reform.