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Politicians Must Stop Playing Trains 19 December 2006

Posted by David in Policy.

In the 1990s, Britain privatised the railways. Hooray! The nationalised BR was a joke, and anyone saying otherwise is looking back through rose tinted glasses. Remember the BR sandwich, the recipe for which actually stated how to cut the filling to reduce the amount used but still make the sandwich look full, or the orange interior paint scheme, or the terrible staff attitude? Nationalisation in 1948 was a nail in the coffin of our railways (grouping in 1923, WW2 and Dr Beeching being the main others).

But alas, privatisation was not what it was meant to be. At first the lines were to be splut into several big regional companies like they had been 1923-1948, and although the regions were too big, the idea was sound. One railway line, one company, doing everything (vertical integration). 

But idealism from the Adam Smith Institute and an EU Directive caused a different system to be adopted, known as vertical separation. One company owned the nation’s infrastructure, one set of companies owned the rolling stock, and another ran the trains (leasing rolling stock and bidding forfranchises to use the infrastructure). The idea was that new companies, mostly freight hauliers, could ‘book’ timeslots or paths on any line. Good idea, but it didn’t need this system. A clearing house could have sold unused timeslots to other companies with a vertically integrated system.

This system has let politicians play trains far too much. After the Hatfield accident, Labour put temporary speed limits on all lines, against the advice of their engineers, causing many services to be cancelled. Train operators lost millions, so sued Railtrack, which the government agreed to bale out (they had after all been the ones who imposed speed limits out of all proportion). Then they pulled out, bankrupting Railtrack, and nationalising it by stealth as Network Rail.

Now the government is again meddling with the railways. Demanding huge franchise fees from GNER, they have caused fares to soar and are now reopening bids for the franchise, determined to oust GNER. The state should stop playing trains and privatise the railways properly.


1. Roger Dyer - 23 January 2007

My comment applicable to many of the comments posted about UK transport. Trains are a strong example of the main problem. You are specifically discussing the symptoms of a more widespread disease in the management of UKplc. Unfortunately politicians now interfere more in the running of UKplc, so the Civil Service is becoming powerless to provide rational decision making over the longer term.

On your specific comment. I noticed this trend in my own career as a bridge engineer (E.W.H. Gifford & Ptns) around 1973-4. The oil shock and the 3 day week led politicians to feel they needed to interfere more in the running of UKplc. This then inevitably led to ‘short termism’ in the provision of infrastructure. It was made worse, in my opinion, by most politicians (not M. Thatcher) having a legal training in Anglo Saxon traditions. By comparison our European neighbours are influence more by Roman law as it has developed into the Napoleonic or Code Civil. I decided to leave the UK infrastructure business and obtained an M.Sc., which got me a job abroad in the oil industry.

I have watched with dismay at the lack, and mismanagement of investment in UK infrastructure. My own worst example is the redirection of the trains from the Arun Line to Gatwick in 1978. This was a short term decision when somebody noticed that transatlantic flights were then arriving at Gatwick. No additional line capacity was provided, and this is at the root of the overcrowding of the Brighton and other southern services into London. All solutions proposed by well qualified transport engineers have been successively vetoed by the treasury based politicians. What the proposed 20,000+ new homes in East and West Sussex will do to the system is anybody’s guess.

Another micro example is the Metro link tram system in Manchester, whereby the tram generally parks for between 3-5 minutes to allow the road traffic to continue with minimum disruption, surely this doesn’t really portray the benefits of public transport to road users when they drive past, albeit slowly and watch the tram stopped at the junction awaiting entry to Manchester Piccadilly station. Again for the people using the bus service there are no pedestrian crossings to get to Piccadilly rail station from Fairfield Road, even though many millions of pounds have been invested in creating a transport hub here.

Most educated people that have to travel on business share a frustration, but feel powerless to stop the Politicians interfering in Management when they should only be deciding on Policy. I can only suggest more engineers and professionals stand as an MP, or as in my case, pester you own MP. We have Nick Herbert, an intelligent legal trained mind. Fortunately he does listen occasionally, and I have convinced him he should never become minister for transport! He has also taken up the cause to try to improve matters locally.

Do not get too depressed – get a house in France. I travel there by train on a system that has a Zero CO2 emissions, as the electricity is nuclear. Barring the usual French strikes, the system works quite well for me as I need to commute to Paris occasionally for my consultancy business.

2. Thomas Byrne - 2 July 2009

Well said, the piece I’ve written also shows the flaws in the system.

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