In last week's post Privatisation Profiteers Ride the Rails (at your expense), ANDY FLEMING examined the Tories' half baked, inefficient, horrendously expensive and disastrous privatisation experiment with our railways.
In the last post in this series he examines why Britain's rail network now the most fragmented and expensive in Western Europe to both passenger and tax payer alike, has become a cash cow to train operating companies who reap the profits, while you and I pay the losses.
Following the botched privatisation of British Rail in 1994, hopes were high that a change to a New Labour government in 1997 would see re-nationalisation of this strategic national asset in a country crying out for an affordable, reliable, safe and fully integrated environmentally-friendly public transport system.
But of course we didn’t see any such change. The key was in the word ‘New’. What we received was just a continuation of Major’s full-baked policies in railways and elsewhere, just different cronies enacting them. Sure there was the odd left winger full of bluster who was ready to drop all of their principals, in order to give the impression that there may be a little socialisation of the economy but of course it was a mirage. As would become clear following Tony Blair and George Bush’s illegal Iraq War of 2003, the petroleum industry was still pulling the strings despite the environmental rhetoric and run-ins with hard working truck drivers.
This phoney environmentalism was however a deceitful and duplicitous way of launching a full scale assault on the motorist with crippling petrol taxes, while simultaneously John Prescott was announcing an investment in railways so grand that the Victorians would have been jealous. It was of course all lies. Most of the £30 billion funding for the network announced in early 1999 wasn’t new money at all, just recycled promises from the last days of Major’s corrupt and sleazy administration. New Labour were of course masters of lies, dishonesty and deceit (these grotesque human traits were of course spun as ‘spin’ to the gullible).
It was brought home to me one night when BBC Look North carried a visit by Tony Blair to a primary school in Ferryhill, part of his Sedgefield constituency. One little girl asked the Prime Minister a fantastic question that deserved a fully honest answer.
“Please can you re-open Ferryhill station as there are a lot of people here who can’t afford cars”, she said.
His answer would be the reason why I wouldn’t vote Labour ever again,
“I’d love to be in a position to do it, but it would be just far too expensive”.
It was clear where this charlatan’s loyalties lay and they certainly weren’t with his constituents’ needs in a civilised society for even a basic public transport system. And he certainly couldn’t care less about the environment.
A stark wake-up call about why voting is a totally pointless activity. In future, if you ever delude yourself and think that the raison d’etre of elected representatives is to speak up for the 99.9%, re-read the above paragraph. Because although Tony Blair couldn’t find a pittance in national terms for a little station on the East Coast Main Line at Ferryhill, he would sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of pounds to conduct his and his sidekick’s illegal war in Iraq. But the railways aren’t Halliburton, General Electric, Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin are they? They should be there to provide a service for ordinary people. But Blair of course couldn’t have given a jot about ordinary people. Connections made!
Right up to the present day it really wouldn’t have made any difference who had been the government as far as the railways were concerned. A series of appalling accidents such as Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield on what should have been the safest mode of land transportation were the real reasons why the hated, inept and greedy Railtrack was sort of semi-renationalised into Network Rail. While executives such as Gerald Corbett were trousering a fortune, basic maintenance of points was being cut and neglected and broken rails had turned up across the network. Train protection technology in which our continental neighbours had invested but we had not meant that Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs) were a frequent issue.
Train Operating Companies (TOCs) eager to cash in on this house of cards, came and were then forced to hand the franchise keys back either for appalling service, lack of investment or because the railway was not the cash cow it had first appeared. Remember names such as Connex, MTL/ Spirit, Arriva Trains Northern, or Great North Eastern Railway (GNER)? The latter returned the keys to the State not due to the rail business – it had after all inherited a newly electrified ECML and new electric Class 91 locomotives on what was the UK’s premier route. It left the business because its parent company Sea Containers went belly-up. National Express couldn’t hack the franchise either so out of desperation, most of the Inter City traffic on the route has been run at increasing profit by East Coast. But guess what? East Coast is a nationalised franchisee now being primed for yes, you guessed it – privatisation.
Who is making the money from this privatisation for privatisation’s sake? Well it certainly won’t be the taxpayer, who just as in the case of the banks is the victim once more of the privatisation of profit and socialisation of losses. It will no doubt be city investors, the banks and pension funds – oh, I nearly forgot to mention no doubt some of their friends in politically low places.
For the last thirty years I have opposed the privatisation of strategic state industries for a plethora of reasons. Some of these have been social, some political and some for economic or practical reasons. In the case of the railways I see no benefit whatsoever to the travelling public after two decades of privatisation. Infact, many commentators estimate that the cost of the railway in real terms to the Exchequer is up to six times more than it would have been under British Rail. Sure, there has been investment in infrastructure and rolling stock – there had to be because the railways had been so run down after decades of neglect under both Labour and Tory governments.
However, there has been little investment in regional rail exemplified by the decrepit network in north east England with a history of uninspiring franchisees. Open access has provided opportunities for some innovative companies such as Grand Central (unfortunately now bought out by Arriva), and Hull Trains, but there has been little movement to increase electrification route mileage. Reopening of lines or stations, very popular amongst the electorate, has become so hideously expensive under the privatised railway that few routes are being resurrected. Most of the main exceptions are in Scotland whose quite pro-rail parliament has sanctioned the re-opening of part of the Waverley Route to Galashiels and the Borders whose closure was so short-sighted under Labour’s Barbara Castle in the late sixties.
Privatisation is a political red herring and always has been; it's just a right wing ideology designed for the negative redistribution of wealth from the 99.9% to the rich elite. The state versus free enterprise debate is sterile. Because what matters is not who the shareholders are, but if the organisation itself has any competition. And whether private or public the railway has very little. If you don’t like overpriced and unattractive rail travel, then how does the alternative appeal to you – the worst maintained and congested road infrastructure in Europe. Hardly a more appealing option.
And there’s the thing on ticket prices and monopolies. The railway still operates under laws of economics from a parallel universe. In most industries, as sales increase a company grows and increases capacity. Not so in the rail industry. How many times have you travelled on an over-crowded and what should be illegal train, thinking to yourself why don’t they build more carriages? In most industries, demand would indeed be met by increased production. In the Alice in Wonderland economic world of Britain’s railways the answer is, and has been since the sixties to choke off demand by raising ticket prices. The effect: more individuals forced back into cars which has been the supposed antithesis of government policy over the last twenty years. It’s called non-joined up thinking.
As I stated in part one of this series of posts, the British have always loved railways. It’s not surprising as Britain was the country of their birth, Stockton-on-Tees, where I write this, part of their very cradle. But we have always hated the people who have mis-managed them on our behalf. It doesn’t matter whether that has been a civil service department or a bunch of private rail operators cashing in on the money merry go round and blame culture of our fragmented railway network. A monopoly is a monopoly after all, there’s just the sniff and price of more corruption in a private industry where there’s billions of pounds of public cash being mis-spent under the instructions of bent politicians and a castrated Office of Rail Regulation.
Having said that both private and public monopolies are bad the clincher for me in saying “bring back British Rail” is this - the six-fold increase in subsidy in real terms for the private railway.
Now, which political party in believing their own rhetoric, said privatised railways would be much more efficient than the state monolith that was British Rail? The Tories. After twelve years in power and with all of the above evidence available to them said it would be too expensive to re-nationalise the rail industry? New Labour.
More evidence, if you needed it, as to why voting is a waste of time.