In the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s adventures on the 1100 hours Virgin Trains East Coast departure from London’s Kings Cross terminus last week, we now have the Traingate discussions rippling out from whether Jezza and his team were being slightly economical with the actualité to the wider question of who owns and runs the railways - and, for pundit and campaigner Owen Jones, to whom they might be accountable.
Owen Jones - asking the questions
To this end he has written “From the floor to first class, Britain’s railways are a disgrace”, which may surprise all those who use Virgin’s “other” franchise, that which traverses the West Coast Main Line out of London Euston. Jones begins with a straightforward claim.
“If you believe in free market dogma – that private ownership inevitably brings more efficiency, better quality and cheaper services – then there are two major embarrassments in Britain: the NHS and the rail industry … The NHS is embarrassing because it is a publicly run healthcare system that is superior to and more efficient than the privately run, fragmented mess that is the US equivalent … The rail industry is an embarrassment because it can demonstrate just how atrocious services run for profit can be”.
I’ll concentrate on the rail aspect. Jones also asserts “The desire for the railways to return to public ownership … is not born of mass false consciousness, of a failure to understand that privatisation has been a glorious success”.
His complaints are not new ones: overcrowding, potentially high fare levels, the level of public subsidy, perception that systems on mainland Europe are better-run, and that East Coast was better when in public ownership. To these, Jones adds the idea of passenger and worker representation in the running of franchises.
So let me take all of those one at a time: British Rail was, it has to be said, very good value for the taxpayer. Subsidy levels were far lower than they are today. But there were a lot of old, and ageing, trains, and service levels were not up to today’s standards, especially service frequency. But Jones scores one on subsidy.
On overcrowding, that was there in BR days too. It will not improve any time soon, whoever runs the railway. Modern passenger vehicles have a significant capital and maintenance cost, and keeping them in sidings waiting for the busiest rush hours, or even worse, kept in reserve for holiday periods, does not make economic sense. For long distance services, mainland European operators have a straightforward remedy: no seats are sold without a reservation. No seats available, you don’t get on.
That is, after all, what airlines do. Moreover, it’s what coach operators all over Europe - including the UK - also do. Only the railways retain the “walk up and go” concept. Whenever this is pointed out to pundits, they tend to find it a challenging one to answer. I will be interested to hear Owen Jones’ response to that one.
Fare levels come down to a political decision, made - if only by inference and default - by the last Labour Government, although the Tories have continued the policy. We can have lower fares, but the taxpayer - most of them do not travel by train at all - has to pay more. Government policy is for those taxpayers to pay less over time - and passengers, therefore, to pay more. Private sector operators using demand management to fill trains at quieter periods, while charging more for flexible tickets, are merely continuing a trend started by BR.
And that, as ever, brings us to the question of ownership. Here, some basic facts about the extent of private sector involvement need to be explained.
Let’s take Virgin Trains as an example.
They do not own the trains.
They run several, but not all, of their major stations, but do not own them.
They do not specify the timetable (the Government does that).
They have no say in train maintenance schedules (Alstom and Bombardier do that).
They do not own or manage the tracks on which their trains run.
Their East Coast trains are the same ones Government-run East Coast used.
Their franchise commitments are closely controlled by the Government - this is the same for all other private sector operators. For their East Coast franchise, Virgin contributes the branding and just a 10% share in the operation (Stagecoach has the other 90%).
The rail network is owned, maintained and run by Network Rail - a public sector company.
As to Jones’ more democratic accountability - this is an interesting idea, but it has to be stressed that the most important decisions affecting the railway - new trains, electrification, new ticketing, new lines, and so on - are not the kind of things that are done or varied on a day to day basis. And the scale of investment required is one that Governments will inevitably want to keep an eye on - as they underwrite the lease costs of all those trains.
I can imagine the frustration of Owen Jones, and everyone else for whom the railway does not always function as they might expect, but the private sector involvement is nowhere near as complete as it may seem, and as with so much else, turning this industry-sized supertanker around is not that straightforward.
But it’s good that mainstream pundits want to take the idea seriously. More please.