I try and be a positive person. But this going to be another cross-patch article, because its’ subject is absurd.
The spectre of nationalisation is back to haunt our railways.
To the socialists, the “success” of the East Coast TOC, run by Whitehall as the previous contract holder bailed, is proof we must renationalise the railways.
So let’s take that apart. We’ll start with the single example in the whole country, East Coast.
East Coast runs on the East Coast Mainline, a line built jointly by various companies in the 19th Century, electrified in the 1980s. It includes at its full length the Forth Bridge, that monument to Victorian grandeur.
East Coast runs a fleet of two types of train. The Inter-City 125s of 1970s vintage still have slam doors and despite being given new engines, are what they are. Which is a stop-gap soldiering on long after it was supposed to. The trains which were meant to replace them never came along. These handle all traffic North of Edinburgh, on non-electrified lines, and various Yorkshire and Northern services.
Then there are the 225s, so called because they run that fast in Kilometres per hour. 125s’ top speed is in miles per hour. They are marginally faster in theory, in practice the two can swap roles on electrified lines, and do. British trains are limited on most routes to 125mph. The 225s are more modern, having been introduced in the late 1980s. There were formerly “Eurostars” on the line, but these weren’t a success and were returned before the “renationalisation”.
Plans for new trains, much like trains, have been “coming” for what feels like forever. East Coast has refurbished some, however the company still uses surplus trains from East Midlands trains to plug gaps in their own fleet. The company’s major improvement has been abolishing restaurant cars and turning all 1st Class into a restaurant instead.
Hardly the impressive level achieved by Virgin Trains with their new Pendolinos & Voyagers or the efforts of other companies such as Hull Trains, Grand Central and East Midlands in getting new trains. Indeed, there are plenty of new trains East Coast could have ordered to replace its ageing fleet ready off the shelf from manufacturers.
The problem with a Whitehall Railway, is that a railway is not a bureaucracy. It actually has to work, and work constantly. Already that sounds very Un-Whitehall. It demands more of the civil service than it can deliver. It’s worth noting that since privatisation, for all its flaws, the railways have hugely improved. More people are travelling, fares are very affordable if you’re not buying at the booking office and there are penalties for bad operators.
But what would happen if the Whitehall Railway Company Limited joined the bidding fray, as proposed by Messrs Miliband & Unions incorporated? Well, in the first place expect the competition commission to come down on it like a ton of bricks. The government that awards the contract is also bidding? You can already hear the company lawyers getting their court clothes ready.
Then there’s the fact that Whitehall, if the process was fair, would be out-bid. The government is terrible at running railways and knows it. So a lot of civil servants will waste their time organising bids. What they’ll do between bidding periods we don’t know. Perhaps they’ll be given a huge train set to play with and learn the trade?
If they do win, and fail, what then? Whitehall railways are meant to be a caretaker companies for when others fail. Who’ll clean up if they fail?
Then there is the other question. Is this actually going to please the unions? There were plenty of rail strikes on the nationalised railways. With one of the major unions, the RMT not involved in cooking up this policy mess you can bet they’ll be less than pleased if Labour continue to leave them out of their chumocracy. Will Unions in the inner-Labour-loop get preference? Now there’s something that would cause a strike.
The worst thing is though isn’t how ill-thought out the policy is. It’s that the solution is obvious. De-nationalise. Let the railways be run by companies. Set each franchise up as its own company and then just let the market take its course. Franchises were always a very bad idea for the railways, permanent companies have a stake in investing that franchise-holders don’t. If lines need subsidies those can be paid at arms’ length. Companies which include a mainline and several feeder routes however should be able to sustain a small service that loses less in a year than a mainline makes in a month.
After all, the railway companies managed better than BR to run a good and improving railway.