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It’s private ownership that’s causing chaos on our railways

WHEN George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership claims chronic chaos in Northern Rail has cost businesses the best part of £40 million, it is tempting to lay the blame for Britain’s rail crisis on the hapless Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary in a Tory Cabinet whose constantly revolving membership has broken all records for dysfunctional chaos, policy confusion and serial incompetence.

But this is principally a system crisis, both of government and of policy. It is John Major, former Tory prime minister, who must bear the personal blame for the original decision. It was he who implemented the Thatcherite dream of a railway system restored to private ownership. 

The cult of capitalist ownership found willing adherents in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but New Labour added new doctrinal decisions to replace what was — even under Tory governments  — a relatively cohesive, rationally organised and integrated system with a dense undergrowth of competing contractual obligations.

With trains leased by banks to bare-bones train-operating companies, constant conflicts between the people running the network infrastructure and these companies, a complex regulatory regime and a host of franchisees fixated on shareholder profit rather than passenger satisfaction, we finished up with a rail industry that had more call for lawyers than signal staff. 

It is a sign of just how divorced the Tory Party is from the country at large that it persists with a privatisation policy that even a majority of Tory voters want reversed.

The system breeds chaos. Consider this example. A late-running train en route to the south coast is stopped at the station before Gatwick airport so that it can be divested of its passengers and run fast and empty to its destination, thus ensuring that its operating company incurs only one fine for running late rather than another for the delayed return trip.

The result is that hundreds of passengers miss their flights. Repeat such idiocies over the decades and even the most naive of Tory commuter comes to comprehend the anti-human anarchy of capitalism.

Rail nationalisation — the post-war Labour government’s solution to the chronic underinvestment, ruthless profiteering and grotesque inadequacies of Britain’s privately owned railways — was not an unqualified success. 

How could it be when burdened by massive compensation charges, saddled with out-of-date power units, rolling stock and infrastructure? But its problems were amenable to government direction, state aid and economic planning.

This was the period when engines and rolling stock were built in Britain and when British Rail was renowned for its innovative industrial design and transport information graphics.

There are no halfway solutions to today’s rail crisis that involve continued private ownership. Already the train operating companies cannot guarantee profits to their shareholders without massive government subsidies.

Meanwhile, the list of failed franchises grows longer with the state succeeding where private “enterprise” fails.

It is a sign of how discredited the notion of rail private ownership is that even the most rabid Remainers pretend that rail nationalisation is possible within the EU. 

However, the ever-tightening European Union regime of competitive tendering and profit-driven fragmentation — coupled with its market liberalisation strictures — means that even if a nationally owned British state rail monopoly existed it would be vulnerable to the EU’s state aid rules.

French railway workers have not been on strike because the sun is shining. When SNCF was split up into train-operating and infrastructure bodies, the European Court of Justice found the plan breached EU state aid rules. And the consequent drive to cut costs is putting SNCF staff pay, pensions and conditions on the line.

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