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Monday 27 September 2010

Not A Good Or Great Doctor

Although many enthusiasts despised Richard Beeching, he of the famous report, those who worked for and with him gave a different view. Gerry Fiennes, whose seminal work “I Tried To Run A Railway” is known to many inside and outside the industry, called Beeching “The Great And Good Doctor”.

This may have been because Beeching at least gave some purpose to the railways, some idea that the industry major in things it did well, where it could show an advantage over its competition. Since his day, there have been yet more “reports” into our rail system, the latest coming from the body thought to be Young Dave’s favourite think tank.

That body calls itself Policy Exchange, and describes itself as “Using centre-right means to progressive ends”, which sounds suspiciously like a contradiction in terms. The group has just published a “research note” called What To Do About Trains In Britain (the PDF file is available to download).

What is proposed is the elimination of the subsidy paid to Network Rail, through the injection of cherished free-market ideas such as competition and localism, although the idea that local authorities and community groups are going to step in and find the money to run rail services might leave some in and around the industry with a credibility gap.

Moreover, there is a not particularly subtle hint as to how costs may be drastically reduced: Page 9 of the “research note” observes that 50% of stations currently generate 3% of revenue. And, even if infrastructure costs were reduced by the 40% that is inferred, that would not eliminate the subsidy.

Like much that the free-market think tank sector produces, it all seems remarkably simple. But the result for many communities, where rail is the only decent public transport option, may not be a pleasant one.

[It may be noted that Tim Leunig, the author of this “research note”, co-authored Cities Unlimited, a 2008 Policy Exchange report that told of failures in urban regeneration in northern towns and cities, urging instead that the Government should encourage internal migration to the south east. Even Young Dave recoiled from this, describing the report as “insane” and “complete rubbish”]

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