Friday 28 September 2018

Is British Rail Mk II the solution to the problems on our railways?


This week, we saw the Labour Party have a hugely successful party conference. I am not a Labour Party member (I'm a member of the Lib Dems for the record), but I was hugely impressed by much of what was said. Whether you are green, red, blue or orange, it is simply impossible to ignore the program laid out by shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. I've been quite surprised by the knee jerk reaction to much of this from the right wing press. It seems to me that calling schemes such as employee share ownership schemes and worker participation in the boardroom are eminently sensible. German companies such as BMW have been doing this for decades and by any measure they do rather well. I will return to this theme in a later blog, but perhaps one of the most tempting policies laid out by McDonnell was the scheme to renationalise the railways. This has huge public backing, even amongst Tory voters. But is it the right way to go?  Let consider a few facts.

Line graph
Rail Usage in the UK
The railways had there origins in the Victorian age. Britains industrial revolution and wealth was built on the work of the navvies who built the railways. They were held in private ownership until 1948. Then they were nationalised. Between 1948 and 1997 British Rail ran the network as a privatised single entity. They ran trains, built trains, ran the tracks, maintained the tracks and even made their own sandwiches. This wasn't exactly a successful period for the railways as the graph  on the left (courtesy Absolutelypuremilk/Wikipedia). Given the two world wars had a huge impact on the railways and the economy, we can't draw instant conclusions, however, there can be no argument that in terms of passenger usage, privatisation has resulted in huge passenger growth. 

Another aspect of the British Rail era that advocates of a private railway point out is the huge contraction of the rail network under the nationalised management. Sadly this was ill thought through and many of the lines which were closed during this period would now be vital arteries. Had Beeching not closed the Great Central Mainline, it could be argued that there would be no need for HS2. Similarly the closure by BR management of the Woodhead Route, the UK's first mainline electrified route, between Manchester and Sheffield, would have been the spine of the Northern Powerhouse. Many routes that were closed, have been reopened at huge expense to the taxpayer. In London, the best example of this was the reopening of the Thameslink route between Farringdon and Blackfriars. How anyone could have missed the potential of a mainline rail route through London is beyond me. Other examples of routes being (often partially) reopened is the Varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge and the Waverly Route, which used to run between Carlisle and Edinburgh. The Waverley Route was reopened on the cheap and is now suffering from overcrowding. The justification for the single track solution, which has been demonstrated to be totally inadequate was that it would be impossible to have made a business case for a fit for purpose line.

In short, we are spending what  will likely be hundreds of billions of pounds just to undo the damage done by the government and the nationalised railway management. If you simply look at the railways in these terms, then Nationalisation is completely bonkers. However, there is a bigger picture. The track infrastructure is already nationalised. It is run by Network Rail, which had to sort out the mess left by Railtrack, which was a complete disaster and saw the network virtually collapse, after several lethal crashes caused by shoddy work and bad planning. No one familiar with what happened in the Railtrack era could possibly make the case for privatisation on that basis. Then there is the East Coast mainline. This has been privatised and renationalised three times. This was not because the government wanted to. It was because the private operators failed. Commuters in Barnet have seen the massive failure of the new timetable for the Thameslink route. This was a systemic collapse, with both Network Rail and the private operator Govia completely failing. There is a fantastic analysis of this on the London Reconnections website, which demonstrates how the cock up happened.

When John McDonnell talks of renationalisation, my first question is what exactly will he renationalise? Will it be BR MkII with even the sandwiches being made in Crewe under direction of the British Rail Board? Will the trains all be owned and built by BR? In some ways this is attractive. In the 1970's and 1980's BR made some excellent trains. The Inter City 125 trains are 40 years old and still going strong. In Mill Hill, we have the Thameslink line. The 319 class trains, introduced in the mid 1980's  were replaced only last year. These have not been scrapped, but transferred to other lines. It is pretty clear that they were well built. They have outlasted some designs made since by private train builders.  I think from an engineering point of view BR was exceptional, but it would be hard to put British Rail Engineering back together. As train builders now need a global perspective, I am not convinced that it is desirable. As to owning the rolling stock. Clearly this doesn't work with 7 year franchises, which is the Tory governments preferred option. With both long franchises and nationalisation, then it can become highly cost effective. The issue is that UK governments are short term in their thinking and they don't want to spend billions up front, which is why we get lumbered with Train leasing and PFI schemes.

And what about the good rail franchising companies? Not every franchise is like the GTR franchise that has run Thameslink so awfully. I am reliably informed by friends who commute into Marylebone from Oxfordshire, that their line is well run and they would not like a return to the BR days. My preferred option would be for McDonnell to make sorting the network out his priority. I would love to see Thameslink run by TFL, as I would with many other suburban routes. I would love to see failing franchises booted out and replaced by nationalised entities. Where I would disagree with McDonnell is that I wouldn't boot out well run franchising companies for ideological reasons.

The way the UK runs, builds and manages rail is a mess. To open or close a railway requires an act of Parliament. To me, this is insane. I can understand why a major route such as HS2 may require such an act, but just imagine that there was a viable business case to put a short spur on the Thameslink line from Mill Hill to Edgware along the disused former rail line (no such plan exists). Does it  really justify an act of Parliament? Small schemes that are non controversial should be freed of all such red tape.

I congratulate McDonnell on putting the topic on the agenda and up for discussion. It is clear that the current Tory government and the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, are clueless. They have totally mismanaged everything related to rail. Grayling has made it clear that he is not up to the job of managing private monopolies (that most franchises are). I have no doubt that he'd be even worse at managing a nationalised railway. My biggest fear of McDonnells plan is not that Labour will mismanage the railways, but that when the electoral mood shifts, as it always does (assuming a Corbyn government ever gets in) and the Tories get back in, they will do what they've always done to our Nationalised railways and decimate them.

If you ask any regular rail user what the problems with Britains  railways are they will say they are expensive, unreliable and overcrowded. The sad truth is that until a politician comes out and says "The problem with our railways are that they are expensive, unreliable and overcrowded and here is a plan to solve that" we are doomed to have this ideological debate which does nothing apart from waste peoples time, money and effort and gives them an awful service. If you look at the railways in France and Germany, it is clear that nationalised rail can work rather well if it is managed properly. I suspect we need more nationalisation to sort the mess out, but I don't think BR MKII is the answer. What we need is a solution lead approach, where we look at what we are trying to fix, before we propose a solution.

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