This is not a normal post, so if you're expecting pretty pictures or news sorry but this won't be your type of post. However, over recent weeks the re-nationalise/don't re-nationalise debate has got a bit lively and I thought I'd explore this topic a bit.
Whisper the word "re-regulisation" in earshot of a bus manager and you get some pretty dirty looks. That would mean all routes, profit and loss making being taken "in house" by the local authorities, who would decide via the tender system who would operate each route. The authorities would determine routes, frequencies, fares, vehicles used etc. The option for operators to start new or competing routes at will would go. It is a touchy subject with passionate supporters of the idea, and just as passionate opponents. One of the main objections I hear is "What do the councils know about running buses?" Of course no one has considered the possibility of Councils recruiting from the bus industry but I digress. Right now the Councils only tender out for loss making routes the operators don't want to run commercially, and that costs money with no return so route after route is being cut. Things really have to change, and fast.
So what about the Railway, the so called privatised railway. Why are there calls to have it re-nationalised? Quite simply infrastructure is too old and unreliable, fares too high, trains overcrowded, and supporters believe total re-nationalisation would solve everything. Those against the idea seem to think it would mean an immediate and unavoidable return to the strike ridden days of British Rail, where the service was equally poor, trains as dirty and overcrowded, and infrastructure poorly funded. So who is right in this argument?
To begin with we have to determine who actually runs our railways, who are the big decision makers. It's Whitehall, specifically the Department of Transport. They own Network Rail, who manage the infrastructure, ie stations, tracks, security, signals etc. The D of T also decides who operates the passenger train services - normally the operator who offers them the most money rather than the best service - determines annual rises in regulated fares, sets service and investment levels, and has the power to strip operators of their franchise. So in a privatised railway the government sort of still run it. Ok that's as clear as mud. But it gets murkier. Because the Government own the network, they then charge the operators, who are already paying them for the honour of running the services, rent on the track too. It's a bit like paying the Government to use your car - a tax, for example, then paying again for every mile you drive on them, like the M6 toll or Dartford Crossing, or congestion charge - ok that's already happening but for train operators it's constant. Plus they are expected to invest in new rolling stock, improve station facilities, get information correct, fly over obstructions, immediately return lost property etc etc. It's surprising anyone would want to do it! Basically the same as the re-regulisation bus companies don't want.
But we haven't reached the murkiest depths yet. There are vast armies of number crunchers, and I mean vast, whose sole job it is to apportion blame in the case of delays, and boy are they thorough. There is something you need to understand about train delays. If your train is delayed by 3 minutes at say Beccles because someone takes a long time boarding that doesn't seem much. However if it gets to Ipswich 3 minutes late and the Mainline service leaves late as a result that becomes 6 minutes. At Manningtree that can become 9 minutes if the Harwich train is delayed. At Colchester the Walton train is delayed waiting for the mainline train to clear the points, and the stopping London service leaves late too. The snowball gets bigger and bigger. I have seen a 4 minute delay total over 1,400 minutes due to affected services also delayed, and operators are fined up to £120 a minute for delays.
So obviously the operators have similar armies trying to push the delay blame onto Network Rail, who have to compensate the operators for signal and points failures, overrunning engineering works, security breaches, blocked lines and so on. Every second really counts and Lord knows just how much money is spent investigating and dealing with delays. Of course if everything was actually owned by the government this expense would be saved - a delay would be a delay and that would be it. Delay/repay would continue, but with everything coming out of the same coffers.
So let us examine the case for re-nationalisation. One reason is the above, with much money saved from ending the blame wars. I suggest fares would be the second. The current fares structure is a national disgrace. To get the best fares at the moment you need an intimate knowledge of railway geography, and the multitude of operators across the network. I read the other day of a customer looking for a ticket from London to Thirsk in North Yorkshire. The cheapest he found was £110. A bit of searching and he discovered he could get to York, one stop away, for £29 ON THE SAME TRAIN!. I myself have spent hours on websites trying to split fares to get the best bargains and saving a fortune. But I shouldn't have to. When I went from London to Carlisle a couple of months ago the cheapest way was London Midland to Crewe, then Virgin to Carlisle, which was far cheaper than going Virgin all the way. If I didn't know the system as well as I do I'd have ended up paying far too much and that HAS to stop. Having all fares Government controlled should, in theory, solve that problem out as it would be one operator on all services. Yes, slower trains may well still be cheaper but being one operator all journeys and fares would show up on all timetables and the single website. Fares need simplifying radically, a National Railcard available to all for leisure travel needs introducing, which would help fill empty off peak seats, thus reducing the myriad of different railcards available.
We would not return to the 70's. That culture has gone, we have learned, and the public wouldn't tolerate it again. We still have strikes. Lots of them with different operators having different policies. I'm sure the new South Western Trains have their own opinions on the role of the trainmen Stagecoach preserved on the 455/6's, for example. A single operator could have a national policy regarding industrial relations. Oh, and the BTP could be preserved and brought back in Scotland, assuming Scotland wanted to be part of it. If not let Scotland run their own lines with cross border services guaranteed of course.
So that's fares and industrial relations but what about the rolling stock? At present all rolling stock is leased and it would need to be explored if that was to continue or the Government bought all the rolling stock from the leasing companies. It would certainly make it easier to transfer rolling stock from one area to another, something which at present takes an extremely long time to organise.
Services could be integrated so longer routes connecting more areas could be introduced without worrying about who would operate them. So in theory Great Yarmouth - Wales services via anywhere could be created. It's an interesting thought.
So that makes re-nationalisation seem like the obvious answer doesn't it. Lessons learned from the past, current standards maintained and improved and everything simplified, but any anti re-nationalisation supporter will come back with a very good and convincing argument, and it boils down to one word - accountability.
If you pay someone to mow your lawn, or decorate the bathroom you are going to make sure you get what you pay for and everything is done properly. If you do it yourself, though, you are far more likely to cut corners or mutter "that'll do"!. This is what happened under nationalisation. There was woeful under funding, particularly in the infrastructure, which we are paying the price for now. Yes - there were notable achievements, the Intercity 125 being arguably the best of them, and some equally notable flops, APT springs to mind, and the ECML was electrified on the cheap, which again we're still paying for with constant OHL issues. As other countries developed high speed rail travel, such as Japan and France our railways stood stock still. If our railways are to be re-nationalised absolute guarantees need to be made to ensure investment and updating of our railway is maintained and increased.
Trouble is the Government can move the goalposts to suit themselves. Yes so called independent watchdogs can be created, but they tend to be as toothless as a 95yo trying to eat an apple. What has the Rail Regulator done with Govia and the ongoing dispute over the role of Conductors? Told them not to be naughty and behave nicely and that's about it. Have Govia ever been threatened with being stripped of their franchise? Of course not, so if nothing is done with a private company you can rest assured even more nothing will be done if it's Government not doing it right. Network Rail are a case in point - if engineering works overrun sure they get fined, which NR, owned by the Government, pay to erm the Government! Who is there to make sure it doesn't happen again? Why do signals and points fail in the same places with monotonous regularity and nothing is done? Who is there to really crack the whip?
It has been suggested that Train Operating Companies be responsible for their own track maintenance, which is just fine if you're talking about Norwich - Lowestoft, but at least 8 different TOCs use the ECML, not to mention several freight operators and excursion companies, so who would be responsible for the track? You think there's buck passing now!
Speaking of Freight would that be nationalised again too? I haven't heard that mentioned. Could we have a nationalised passenger system and privatised freight operators? Who would get priority? Freight would be paying the Government for use of the track so would justifiably demand the slots they wanted.
Privatisation has the advantage that private money can be used alongside public money to fund new projects. this scheme has many opponents, but under a fully natiionalised railway any new projects would be totally reliant on public money and right now we simply haven't got it.
So you can see that the current system doesn't work particularly well, but neither would re-nationalising the industry, so effectively us poor passengers (increasingly poor if fares keep rising at a higher rate than wages) are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's all well and good TOCs investing in new rolling stock, but if, as with the GEML last year the only infrastructure improvements is cleaned ballast then we will continue to see the likes of Japan, France, even India stretching further ahead of us in rail expansion.
To give a case in point it has been announced this week that £29m is to be spent bringing the signalling on the Wherry Lines between Norwich and Yarmouth/Lowestoft into the 21st Century. Why???? It is the equivalent of turning a cul-de-sac into a dual carriageway. Yarmouth and Lowestoft are dead ends. They have a basic hourly service. There are never, ever any signal failures on those lines. The biggest problem are the swing bridges at Reedham and in particular Somerleyton. Seven signal boxes will go - apart from the two at the swing bridges. How many more years of those seven boxes would £29m pay for? How many improvements to those swing bridges would it pay for? No freight uses those lines so why not use that money, as someone suggested, to part fund the dualing of the Felixstowe branch, which would have far greater benefits. Electrification of the MML has been shelved, not to mention the GWML in Wales. Ely Junction improvements keep getting deferred but hey we can spare £29m to create signal failures on lines that don't have any, making people redundant into the process. Investment is good, but in the name of all that's Holy invest where its desperately needed.
So what's the solution? If I knew that I wouldn't be sitting here writing this. Much brainier people than I have tried and failed to crack this code, and no one has succeeded yet. Our railways need massive, massive investment. Old lines need reopening, current lines upgraded, capacity increased, fares structure radically simplified, TOCs and Network Rail held more to account for poor service. Passenger numbers have doubled in the last 15 years, but seats and capacity haven't. Fares have, though, which means more revenue is coming in. I wonder where it has gone.
When the railway works it's got no peers. It's brilliant. But all too often it doesn't work. Until this is addressed, and the public gain enthusiasm to replace the cynicism then the same old moans will be heard. There's no easy fix, there's no quick fix, but a fix must be found, and the long term future of our railways secured for future generations. Then we will have improved on the generation before us.