Bring Back British Rail?

I think people ought to be wary when they talk about “Bring Back British Rail”. Network Rail was re-nationalised when the Audit Commission told the government it had too much government money going into it and had to be on the Treasury’s books. Now NR does use government money, but  as a semi-private company (actually more like a trust, with a Board of Trustees) it was also able to borrow money from the markets. The markets were perfectly happy to lend it money – lots of it – since the assets NR has are gynormous, that was their guarantee that they could recoup.

You could say that this means that one-third of the railway is nationalised but since NR’s assets are so much more valuable than any other part of the system it’s a lot more than that. Leasing companies own the rolling stock, but as this asset is constantly on the move and therefore gets worn out it depreciates rapidly. Train Operating Companies just run the trains and manage stations so their key asset is staff. The profits they make – and not all do – are a very small proportion of the railway “spend”.and they are expected to start paying money back into the treasury during the course of the Franchise

An interesting video shows how British Rail delayed the opening of the Newcastle Metro because it was not in their interest to see it opened. (starts at 15:00)

What’s happened now is that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond is having to support a lot of uncosted promises in the Tory manifesto and is faced with a declining economy in the wake of Brexit so he’s told NR that they have to sell off one point eight billion of assets. NR managers may have naively thought that money would be reinvested in the railway, but no, it will be spent on tax cuts for the rich and suchlike. So places like Sheffield will continue to have diesel trains, probably until HS2 arrives, contributing to the worsening air pollution. Since then, Transport Minister Grayling has cancelled the electrification of the Midland Main Line saying that the needs of the cities and towns north of Kettering can be met by a technology that does not yet exist – bi-mode trains that can travel over 100 miles under their own power without using diesel. On top of that is the requirement that the ancient HST’s (one of BR’s success stories) have to be made DDA-compliant at a cost of £50m or scrapped by the end of next year. The NAO has just reported that this decision was all about cost and nothing to do with new technology. Grayling has also cancelled about half of the planned electrification of the Great Western.

No doubt under a government led by Jeremy, or even better Caroline and Natalie, all would be marvellous in the railway world, but as soon as you get crooked people like May,  Hammond and Grayling in charge, things can very quickly go pear shaped, so it’s best to keep them at arms length.

In Rail magazine, Michael Holden, the former CEO of East Coast when it was directly operated (aka nationalised)  argues against privatisation. Much has been made of the “success” of EC in as much as that it paid back in to the treasury (money that the railway industry isn’t getting back – again spent on tax cuts for the rich, costs of Brexit and suchlike) but the reality is EC put no investment back into the service, just running the same trains on the same tracks, so while places like Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh continued to get a good service, outliers like Lincoln, Bradford and Middlesbrough were left out in the cold.

The other current example of a rail system being directly managed by the DfT is Southern Railway, which is run on a management contract, leaving the civil servants who wrote the contract happy to let the operating company take the flack for their decisions, Clearly the RMT are using the dispute to attack the government and their members being quite well paid can afford to do that – I have no problem with that other than the distress it is causing passengers with some people losing their jobs because they can’t get to work – but let’s not pretend that it is about who pushes a button on the train. Plenty of trains have no guards and some have no drivers either – they still have to have a staff presence on the train

Let’s turn to the thorny topic of ticketing. It is in the nature of the transport system that they get very well used at some times of day and not so much at others. For the Railway system this means that valuable stock is either running round empty or sitting idle in sidings, while the fixed asset is also not being used. BR’s attitude to that was just to let the trains run around empty. Only when the Saver ticket was introduced did you start to see cheaper off-peak fares introduced. Now there is a wide range of ticket options and people say it is too complicated and confusing. I personally don’t see that – I go to my favourite app, select the journey I want and then just have to make a choice about the type of ticket I want – e.g. can I be sure that I’ll turn up in time for that train to so I can gamble on a no flexibility advanced purchase ticket or do I pay a bit more for a ticket that I can use on a range of trains. There are some fares that are cheaper if you split your journey, but the technology is there to deal with that, and such problems used to exist with BR – for example you couldn’t travel between Sheffield and London via Doncaster, if you tried it the conductor would give you a severe ticking off and possibly make you pay again (by the way, when dealing with train staff a lot depends on how honest, polite and good-natured you are with them)  – but if you went to Sheffield ticket office and asked for a Sheffield to London via Doncaster ticket they couldn’t sell it you. In those days it was a lot quicker to go via Donnie – it’s roughly equal now although journey times between Sheff and London on MML are going to get longer soon. Oh and by the way it used to cost £3 (probably £5 in new money) for a bike reservation on Inter-City – all bike reservations are free now.

Are our train services more expensive that those in other countries? Well firstly you have to take the exchange rate into account. Since the Brexit referendum everything has got more expensive for Brits when abroad – by about 20%. In the recent dispute in France it has come to light that French trains cost about 30% more to run than British ones for an equivalent journey. A return trip from Sheffield to Bordeaux will cost you about £300 with most of that going to SNCF.  In a review the Man at Seat 61 found that most leisure fares in the UK are cheaper than in Europe. Peak-time fares are too expensive in the UK and that is the result of a government decision that passengers should bear the cost of investment in the railway, bearing in mind the years of under-investment in BR which we have still not caught up on.

So what other models of running the railway system could be looked at? Some commentators have advocated the Community Rail model – this has worked very well in bringing rural and branch lines back to life, whether it would work for the long-distance lines could be looked at.

My point is that when you say Bring Back British Rail, be careful what you wish for. Those of us who actually remember British Rail know how crap it was –  ancient rolling stock running on creaky lines, but also that it was run primarily for the benefit of the staff and the management, not the customers. For all their failings TOCs are at least customer focused.  

Some say, well they brought in the HST which was a success – yes they did but they also attempted to build the Advanced Passenger Train which  failed, although tilting trains turns out to be quite easy to do. (See Pendolino) They also brought in the Pacer, the most hated train ever (I’m sure they didn’t want to) Some of the Sprinter variants are quite good.

Now we get lefties saying things like “when we said bring back British Rail we didn’t actually mean bring back British Rail – how could people possibly think that?”

More recently we have had the furore surrounding the disastrous timetable change in May 2018. Whose fault was that? Opinions vary but it is apparent that the DfT and Network Rail were major players

The man in seat F16 (travelling First Class from London to Sheffield in peak time for £17)

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