The Null Device

Bring back British Rail, all is forgiven

A Sunday Times piece on the decline of Britain's railways, whose services have been deteriorating and costs rising, the difference going to the shareholders of private operators:
The new ticket price from Bristol to London with what is, by common consent (and by most of the official indicators) Britain’s worst train company, is £137. At which price you could take a family of five to Budapest and back, although not with First Great Western. Again, this seems better value if you take into account the fact that you might well have to get off the train at Chippenham and travel by bus for a bit; two modes of transport for the price of one, you see. They think of everything for you.
I asked the eminent transport journalist Christian Wolmar what he made of Muir’s suggestion that increased fares would lead to improved services. “It’s just complete and utter crap,” he replied. “The money is going to the train operating companies, full stop.” How much is invested in improving rail services is, in any case, decided in advance by the rail regulator. Muir is being disingenuous. At the least.
Here’s a few more fares to gape at in wonderment: Plymouth to London with First Great Western – £196. That’s three times the cost of the usual return air ticket, and of course it takes almost four times as long by train. London to Manchester on Virgin Trains – £219. Fly instead and it will set you back about £80. And incidentally, those are the old prices, without the “A happy Christmas to all our benighted customers” fare increases.
The author lays the blame at the feet of John Major's Conservative government, and its privatisation of British Rail (which, as maligned as it had been, was apparently much more efficient than today's system), a move driven more by neoliberal ideology and Tory antipathy to public transportation than practical concerns, though New Labour, who have presided over the decline of Britain's railways, get some of the blame:
It is either depressing or hilarious, take your pick, to mull over the fact that the privatised rail network soaks up almost three times as much taxpayers’ money in subsidies than did that much maligned, publicly owned corporation, British Rail. And the sad truth is that in those final years British Rail really was “getting there”.
You might expect of the Conservative party an instinctive affection for that most insular and individualistic form of transport, the motor car. Labour, though, has its ideological roots in public transport – and yet in the 10 years since Tony Blair took office, rail fares have been allowed to rise by 46% (not counting the latest rise), while the cost of travelling by car has risen by only 26%, according to figures from the Department for Transport. In other words, Labour has made it even more attractive to travel by car and less attractive to travel by train.
Again, the train companies will tell you that more people are travelling by rail than at any time since the 1950s. Well, up to a point. But they’re travelling short distances by rail (especially within central London, which recently got its first effectively nationalised route, the North London line). For the longer trips, people are turning to the planes, or sticking with the comfort of their cars.
Or course, the idea of renationalising Britain's railways is absolutely out of the question, because that would be socialism, which is discredited, and it has been proven that free markets always achieve the best of all possible outcomes. So, whoever wins the next election, we can expect more of the same: underinvestment, price rises, and Britons paying for a service that costs considerably more and delivers less than on the continent, and choosing to fly over any distance further than London to Birmingham.

There are 5 comments on "Bring back British Rail, all is forgiven":

Posted by: Michael S. Tue Jan 8 13:32:13 2008

Paying fair prices for rail companies would probably be too expensive, but they might be able to bankrupt them gradually, and then acquire them at cheap prices. (They way TfL got the London Overground system.) If I remember correctly, all of New York's subways were originally privately owned; the city only got them after the operators went bankrupt in the 50s.

Posted by: acb Tue Jan 8 15:19:17 2008

"Fair prices" meaning ones in a free market? That doesn't seem to be possible for railways as a public utility with broad coverage, which need to be subsidised (which is, IMHO, justifiable as a social good). Which is why rail privatisation (in its present form) is a bad idea, as, in the absence of meaningful profits, it just funnels money from the taxpayer to private companies.

Posted by: datakid Tue Jan 8 23:09:02 2008

Isn't that the role of the free market - to funnel taxes into private companies? It would seem so, given "private health insurance" as a further example from Australia of it happening.

Posted by: acb Wed Jan 9 01:27:40 2008

The hypothetical "free market" does not involve taxes.

Posted by: Wed Jan 9 04:00:54 2008

Gah, don't remind me of the private health insurance subsidies! That crap infuriates me.