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10 January 2018

What a Way to Run a Railway!

Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised everything that moved, with the exception of the railways; this appears to have been a step too far even for Mrs Thatcher who didn’t much like trains. Her dislike of the railways manifested itself in the form of systematic financial starvation of the then nationalised British Rail. This had the effect of eventually making BR so shabby and inefficient that it paved the way for her successor John Major to complete the Conservative portfolio of privatisation by taking the railways out of public control.

And what a dog’s breakfast that was! We had Railtrack - a hotchpotch of companies running the tracks and signalling (which in turn sub-contracted out work to all and sundry with often disastrous results) - and an assortment of train operating companies to run trains as route franchises granted by the government, using rolling stock leased from yet more companies.

In the quarter century that has passed since this mishmash was set up a certain amount of rationalisation has taken place, notably by replacing Railtrack with Network Rail (an arm’s-length branch of the Department of Transport). Train operating companies have come and go; some are reasonable operators and some are truly dreadful. The National Audit Office has just reported to Government (January 2018) that Southern Trains, Thameslink, and Great Northern franchises are providing poor value for money.

Why not re-nationalise the railways?

The Labour Party has pledged to bring the railways back into public ownership, but predictably the Conservative privatisation die-hards ridicule the idea. It appears, however, to be quite a popular idea with the general public and long-suffering  train passengers.

I am waiting for these Conservative die-hards to come up with better arguments for their case than the tired old “Don’t people remember the bad old days of the British Rail curly sandwich?”. Oh please, give me a break! As it happens, I was a frequent user of the East Coast main line between York and London during the 1970s and 1980s, and what I do remember is excellent food on those trains; proper food, prepared and cooked in proper kitchens, and served by smartly-uniformed stewards at properly laid-out dining tables. Come to think of it the trains were usually on time, and they completed the journey from York to London in about 1 hour 55 minutes. (In the first few years of privatised train companies the same journey mysteriously slowed to about two and a half hours.)

Here’s another argument trotted out by the Conservatives: “Have people forgotten the decrepit rolling stock, the poor service, the bad time-keeping, the ever-increasing fares?” .. And your point is? .. This seems to me be a pretty accurate description of what we have NOW.

The first company to get the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh and beyond was GNER (Great Northern Eastern Railway). They were, to be fair, a half-decent company that ran smart trains with friendly staff, and continued the practice of serving proper food. But in due course they couldn’t hack it financially and handed the keys back. The franchise then passed to National Express (up to that point just a long-distance bus company). After a new paint job on the trains, some new logos, and a few years’ service they also couldn’t balance the books and handed the keys back.

At this stage (2009) the Labour Government of Gordon Brown took the route back into public ownership and the trains were run by Here is the significance of this move: after the inevitable new paint job and logo changes this line actually started producing a profit for the Treasury. The trains ran on time, they were fast, and they had a customer satisfaction rating of 91%.

This must have been so embarrassing for the subsequent Conservative-led Coalition Government: a State-run railway actually doing what it was meant to do, and making a profit into the bargain. Indeed it must have been so traumatic for the Conservative privateers that it wasn’t long before they put it out to franchise again, and this time it was snapped up by Virgin/Stagecoach. Another day, another paint job.

And now, once again, the latest franchise is in trouble. Virgin/Stagecoach paid the government £3.3 billion to run the franchise until 2023, and now they want to cut it short and also reduce their payments to the government. No doubt anxious to avoid the embarrassment of yet another company handing back the keys the Secretary of State for Transport has caved into the company’s wishes.

Other European nations appear to be able to run perfectly good publicly-owned railways, but British Conservatives are unwilling to see this, although – perversely – they appear to be quite sanguine about the fact that these other railways have a significant stake in our own train companies. For example, Grand Central Trains (also using the East Coast Main Line) are part of Deutsche Bahn’s international arm.

International subsidiaries of European State railways have a part interest in the following ..
Greater Anglia .. Dutch
London Overground .. German
Merseyrail  .. Dutch
Cross Country .. German
Southern .. French
Arriva Wales .. German
South Eastern .. French
Northern Rail .. Dutch
Docklands Light Railway .. Spanish & French
C2C .. Italian
Govia Thameslink .. French
Scotrail .. Dutch
Eurostar .. French & Belgian

The London Underground (a large network reaching far beyond the confines of Central London) is publicly owned and works well.

It seems that dogmatic Conservatives are dead set against State-owned railways unless they are foreign ones!

What a way to run a railway.
Re-nationalise, and let’s have a single (properly funded) national British railway system that we can be proud of, instead of this ridiculous kaleidoscope of companies which are constantly dropping in and out of franchises or pleading for government hand-outs and concessions.

©Lionel Beck
January 2018
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