Thursday, 25 November 2010

Britain's railways are a nationalised industry. Let's admit it instead of making a meal of it.

The Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, announced this morning a further £8 billion of investment for Britain's railway network.

I have long suggested that Britain halts in its tracks this charade that railways are part of a privatised industry run by profit motivated private companies driven by the spirit of healthy competition (see my most recent article on the subject here and mention of it in my party conference diary).

The Government was already supporting Britain's railways to the tune of £5 billion per year yet fares continued to rise, services trimmed, overcrowding continued (see a recent damning report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee) and standards are falling.

This extra investment will go towards providing 2,000 more carriages in order to address the overcrowding problem (although they won't all be in place until 2019).  Worryingly, it does not tackle the problem of exponentially rising fares.  How could £8 billion not be used, in some way, to mitigate, if not freeze (dare I say reduce?) fares?

The BBC reports that passengers face an average fare rise of 6.2% in 2011, with some commuters seeing their tickets go up by as much as 12.8%.  For what justification?  To safeguard this extra investment, according to the Government.  More money to protect the influx of more money?  Behind this paradox is a horrible reality: railway finances are worse than we thought.  Railway companies on the whole are, for all sensible intents and purposes, bust.

Fares are a big issue.  For us to achieve the green revolution necessary in transport, to get people out of their cars and on to the platforms, to eradicate much of the demand for carbon-wasteful internal UK flights - railways must be competitive to customers.  I'm not talking about commuters, whose captive market fares are already protected by legislation and have been for 150 years (admittedly, I don't feel so charitable on purchase of my annual season ticket).  I'm talking about the people faced with the choice of flying to Edinburgh or taking the train, or the people (myself included) who see two hours on the M4 as preferable to the cost of a ticket between London and Bristol.

I don't see anything wrong in Government investment in, and subsidising of, the nation's railway network: in fact, I encourage it.  Collect the proceeds of re-privatisation of state-owned banks and put some of it towards bringing the railways back into public ownership.  Now that could be the start of a real green transport revolution.

Admit that the railways were a privatisation too far (enough Conservative politicians have acknowledged it privately) and a market experiment that hasn't worked.  Instead of this piecemeal, proxy nationalisation, let's be honest and let's do the job properly.

P.S. Martin Kettle at the Guardian has written an excellent piece here about the price of rail travel as being the uppermost concern.

1 comment:

  1. I read this report on Friday (yes I tend to read papers a day late :).

    Have to say I am not surprised. In the last year my usual train fare to London has gone up by £1.60, think I would much rather drive. Also, adding to that the Eurostar is better than most UK train companies. I went to Paris last year on a "cheap deal" for 3 days. The cost was the same as a return to Swindon where my Aunt lives. I think I would rather go visit other cities abroad for the the day than most of the cities in my actual country.

    Can safely say Britain will not be going green with the UK rail network any time soon.