Monday, May 23, 2011

Put Britain's trains on the right track

This piece of mine appears in the Sunday Express.

IMAGINE a detective arriving at the scene of a murder and failing to question the person caught holding a blood-stained dagger over the body. Imagine, too, that the detective then makes no mention of said person in his report.

Far-fetched? Well, overlooking the obvious is exactly what happened last week in relation to an inquiry into Britain’s railways.

Sir Roy McNulty, former chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, was appointed to investigate why our railways are the most expensive in Europe.

His report found 10 main barriers to efficiency and made a series of recommendations, including cutting staff at stations and allowing some train operators to assume responsibility for maintenance.

The most noteworthy thing about Sir Roy’s report was what it did not recommend.

The reason why our fares are the highest in Europe is because, unlike other European countries, our railways are privatised.

While the state-owned railways of Belgium, Germany, France and Austria are run as public services, here they are run to extract as much money out of passengers and taxpayers as possible.

Railways are a good example of a natural monopoly, where the usual arguments about the benefits of competition don’t apply.

When it comes to discussion of our sky-high rail fares, however, re-nationalisation is the elephant in the room, the obvious, commonsense solution that not only the Government but also the Opposition pretends isn’t there.

Perhaps it’s because nationalisation, as a policy option, is considered Left-wing or perhaps it is because no one in our political elite would like to admit that rail privatisation, implemented by John Major’s Tory government in 1996 and carried on by Labour when it returned to power, has proved a very costly mistake.

Privatisation replaced British Rail, a unitary railway company with a hopelessly divided and fragmented network.

The move was supposed to save money for the taxpayer but in fact the private train operators currently receive about fi ve times more in government subsidy than British Rail, £5.2billion.

In effect, taxpayers’ money has been boosting the profi ts of private train firms which then have the audacity to fleece us again by charging the highest fares in Europe.

Instead of spending 15 months on their report, it would have been quicker if Sir Roy and his team had just hopped on a ferry to see how railways operate on the Continent. In Belgium, ticket prices actually fall by 50 per cent at weekends, making it easier to visit friends and family.

A simple distance-based pricing system also operates, unlike here with its mindboggling variety of fares for the same journey.

Sir Roy also found that the costs of operating the railways in Britain is up to 40 per cent higher than in France, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.

Significantly, in those countries, the main railway firms are state-owned but rather than call for re-nationalisation, McNulty recommends companies get longer franchises and “more freedom”.

He also recommends reducing the coverage of off-peak fares regulation which is likely to mean more misery for passengers already hit with average rises of 6.2 per cent in January. It doesn’t have to be like this…

Re-nationalising would not only be good news for passengers but for the economy, too.

Modern economies need mass transport systems that allow large numbers of people to move around quickly, comfortably and relatively cheaply. Before we even talk about new high-speed routes we need to get our existing network up to scratch. As for it being a Left-wing option, re-nationalisation is not about ideology.

If free-market Switzerland can operate a publicly-owned railway why can’t we? It’s also worth remembering that even Nicholas Ridley, Mrs Thatcher’s pro-privatisation transport minister, rejected rail privatisation as a sell-off too far.

It’s not those who call for renationalisation who are being dogmatic but those who still cling to the fiction that a privatised railway is somehow sustainable.

A detective who fails to question the most obvious murder suspect would be considered a poor sleuth and our politicians are failing us if they continue to ignore the simplest solution to our railway woes.


Steve Hayes said...

Hand in hand with privatisation goes deregulation -- I wonder if its having the same deleterious effect in the UK as it is in South Africa? See Notes from underground: Deteriorating transport infrastructure

Leonard said...

Meanwhile, Belgium's publicly-owned rail sector operates, on the whole, with remarkable smoothness, as any visitor to that country can confirm. Not only does every Belgian village (never mind every Belgian town) seem to have a railway station, and not only do trains run on time (however bad the weather), but trains connecting the major centres are extraordinarily frequent. If you miss a train from Brussels to Antwerp, there'll be another one along in 15 minutes, whether or not it's peak hour.