Common Sense on Britain's Railways

If there is a good thing a harried British commuter might want to say about Mussolini (to pick a populist at random) it is that he made the trains run on time. He (Mussolini) also destroyed the Mafia (tho the Yanks revitalised them postwar) and built new towns and commissioned outstanding Modernist buildings across Northern Italy. We slightly lengthen the list of El Duce’s achievements because we want you to recall that it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is as long as it catches mice: that’s modern, market-led, growth-orientated, up-to-date, non-ideological pragmatism professed here as well as in China.

The British commuter is non-ideological: she just wants to get to and from work without wrecking her life. She’s the epitome of a self-interested, common-sense, even aspirational voter that politicians have been courting for decades.

It is truly shameful (though who precisely feels this most keenly we aren’t sure) that one of the world’s seven largest economies cannot run a basic transport system that has been the hallmark of a competent country since the Victorian era. But then in a nation whose construction industry is built on a conjurer's trick known as PFI and where new nuclear plants will only come on stream on the backs of future generations having to fork out to French and Chinese for decades, it should come as no surprise.

Perhaps the most miraculous thing is after almost 25 years of privatisation is that we have a functioning railway at all given that almost every element of its “design” was flawed.

It’s quite amazing too that with privatisation in every department of national life, we still talk about “we”. What is it — this “we” — if all its possessions have been sold-off?

Let’s start with the basic idea of privatising the track network and splitting it off from the trains. Few other countries have tried this and even the United States has retained what is called vertical integration.

The obvious vulnerability of such a hodge-podge was concealed by a surge in passenger numbers as the long economic boom created jobs

Having the two halves split puts them at loggerheads because their aims are opposed: the track owner wants to maximise payments from the train companies and cut costs; the train companies want to see investment poured into the network so they can offer more and faster trains.

The rest of the industry was split into some 25 train networks that are let out on franchises with limited timespans. These have tended to end up in the hands of the new class of private transport oligarchs such as Stagecoach or First Group or being run, ironically, by state-owned European train operators such as Deutsche Bahn that owns Arriva, and Trenitalia that runs C2C.

The obvious vulnerability of such a hodge-podge was concealed by a surge in passenger numbers as the long economic boom created jobs, particularly in cities, that needed train to funnel workers in to fill them. Sadly the needed investment did not match the demand (cf the UK housing market) which led to thousands of people being crammed into carriages like sardines twice a day.

Finally the truth is dawning that a fragmented and under-invested system does not work. Quelle surprise!

Look at who did what wrong in the current crisis. Network Rail missed deadlines.The train companies, Arriva-owned Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway, decided to introduce new timetables that changed the the times of thousands of trains without putting in place any back up plan. Everyone seemed to harbour long term contempt for staff.

Grayling might not up the job of running a government department, but he knows how to play and win the blame game. GTR's boss Charles Horton quit on Friday after being single out for criticism by Failing, while Carne and his chief financial officer gave up £112,000 of bonuses between them.

In the ensuing chaos thousands of passengers were left stranded and unable to get to work (that being the whole aim of the modern railways system). The train companies blamed Network Rail. The government blamed the train companies and Network Rail. The opposition blamed the Conservative party. Network Rail’s outgoing chief executive Mark Carne received a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, marking official death of satire.

The passenger - poor love - realised she was irrelevant and wouldn’t get another vote for exactly four years.

The country that gave us Thomas the Tank engine needs a Fat Controller, but definitely not Failing Grayling. With two-thirds of the country backing rail nationalisation in theory, perhaps Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s son Christopher can start work on the Bearded Controller.

Privatisation was ideological. It’s questionable whether it has reduced public expenditure on rail. It was political. It was meant to take responsibility away from the public sector. This has not happened. All change, please!

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