I find the current conservatism of the UK left dispiriting these days – the way they don’t so much seek after solutions as defend existing institutions.
On the future of railways, unfortunately, they are more than usually old-fashioned, preferring to hark back to the ‘good old days’ of British Rail – forgetting what a disaster it is for railways to be maaged by the Treasury. In the same way, one of the problems with the current dysfunctional system is that it harks back to the ‘good old days’ of the Big Four, wound up in 1948.
Finally, it appears to have dawned on a government packed with harkers-back that the system cannot survive. Franchising of railways was never intended to get through a lockdown or pandemic. So that will be that. We understand that the government is poised to end privatisation – just as the campaigners have been urging.
They will replace it with a system of outsourcing, based on a fee system, whereby the government gets the fares and the companies simply provide the trains.
Now, here is the problem: this is the arrangement already tested to destruction with Govia Thameslink, operating the Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express franchise – which effectively handed passengers over to the tender mercies of the Treasury, which took all the decisions, silently and unaccountably.
It is extraordinary that the memories of ministers don’t extend as far back as 2016. I urge them to read my book Cancelled! quickly to remind themselves.
So if the railways go as I expect they will, this is what we can look forward to…
- Station buildings sold off and handed over to big brand, clone town retailers.
- The end of on-train refreshments.
- Delays and cancellations because there are no longer any spare drivers.
- Strikes because the Treasury is actually managing their industrial retations.
Why? Because the economic pattern is the same. Train operators can no longer make extra profits by doing a good job or attracting more punters, so they have to do so by reducing costs. It makes asset-stripping the only business model on offer.
As I say, be careful of what you wish for – what we need is to think instead of what a future mutual ownership of the railways would look like….