Sunday 28 April 2024

If We Want A Good Railway, Demand One

Many years ago, I made Harriet Harman laugh. We were on a BBC Question Time panel in Cambridge, discussing the piteous state of the nation's trains. And I asked: 'What is the point of the Labour Party if it cannot renationalise the railways?'

It still seems to me to be a good question. For last week's Labour document, designed to look like the return of British Rail, is in fact nothing of the sort. It is a lame acceptance that John Major's weird privatisation scheme has utterly failed. As each rail franchise collapses back into the arms of the state, it will remain under government control. But the idiotic, dogma-driven structure of the railways will remain unfixed.

As Labour's own document lamely admits, the carriages and locomotives on which passengers must travel will stay in the hands of rolling stock companies, because 'with ten current rolling stock companies owning and leasing trains and carriages worth billions, it would not be responsible for the next Labour Government to take on the cost of renationalising rolling stock'. In other words, they can't afford to do it.

So-called 'open access' will also continue. This allows extra operators to cram trains on to crowded tracks, running in between the normal services. This is presumably to make it look as if competition has returned to the railways for the first time since about 1914, as if anyone cared.

I remember an expert transport journalist, a colleague of mine back in the 1990s, coming back from the public hearings about such schemes and banging his head gently on his desk for some minutes before he began to write his reports. He was endlessly astonished at the total failure of those involved to understand how trains actually worked.

As for the rest, we shall see. The break-up of British Railways 30 years ago, like the equally dogmatic break-up of our nuclear power industry, scattered skills and knowledge accumulated over many decades to the winds, broke up and sent down the drain vast amounts of experience, and frittered away long decades of investment.

Remember the terrible Hatfield train crash of October 2000, which killed four and injured 70. There is little doubt that this was a direct consequence of privatisation and the resulting loss of experience.

Heaven knows who will address the multiple stupidities of the privatised system, devised to pretend that market forces can replace common sense and good rational working discipline.

Look at some of them: drivers training only on the tracks used by one privatised company, and so unable to work on other lines when their own is closed for major engineering works; connections not held, stranding dozens of passengers on bare platforms at windy junctions, so that the train they would have travelled on can arrive on time – but empty.

 'We had to take all the passengers off the train so that it could arrive on time' is not quite as ludicrous as the famous Vietnam war excuse: 'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.'

But it is in the same class of idiocy. Such operating rules long ago lost all touch with the main purpose of railways. I am not sure the old standards can be assembled again even by a much more heartfelt return to the past than Labour's.

I also experience, almost daily, painfully expensive new trains capable of 150mph made to sit for long minutes at stations because the timetable has been padded to ensure that they do not become late and so incur fines.

Other features of this Railway Wonderland of Privatised Madness include ceaseless rows in signalling centres between companies demanding priority for their trains and large bureaucracies set up to attribute blame for delays.

I am not sure that Labour, with its plans for yet more elaborate and rapid compensation for such delays, have quite got the point. We passengers would much rather have punctual, clean and safe trains than any number of compensation handouts. We would also quite like it if fares could be at reasonable levels.

British visitors to Northern Ireland are often astounded by the low price of rail tickets there. John Major somehow forgot to privatise them. Since the province's trains have recently undergone quite a few welcome improvements in trains and track, it must surely be possible to run a good nationalised rail system without punitive fares.

Privatisation fanatics will still tell you that the dawn of private rail was followed by a huge increase in passengers. So it was, but this was not caused by privatisation. The change happened to coincide with an accelerating rise in house prices which led many to start commuting far longer distances in the crowded South East, where the roads were already crammed. I was one of these myself, and I did so even before British Rail was killed off.

I have never met anyone who decided to travel by train instead of by car because the train was operated by a private franchise.

There are other myths about the alleged awfulness of British Rail. It had its failings but I would cheerfully have them back. BR catering, for instance, was really quite good, with real cooked breakfasts still available on many trains and rather cheerful buffet cars on many more, now mostly vanished.

The bleak trolleys on my own line, regularly immobilised by overcrowding, are a melancholy remnant of the lost joys of eating and drinking on trains. But in May 2021, announcing plans not deeply different from Labour's, the Tory Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was still going on about the supposedly ghastly BR food, saying: 'We won't be going back to the days of British Rail with terrible sandwiches and all the rest of it' (it was not Mr Shapps's only mention of the supposed sandwich crisis of the old days).

Nor, alas, will we be going back to the days when we travelled on trains rather than 'services', when we were 'passengers', not 'customers', when there were actual staff on trains, keeping the disorder in check late at night, when the seats were cushioned instead of being as hard as ironing-boards and when we were not incessantly lectured about security, about taking all our belongings with us, about taking care when we got off, and about seeing it, saying it, and sorting it.

I liked it when there was one kind of ticket, which was cheap, rather than 250, many of which are wildly expensive. Personally, and I know this is heresy, I relished the freedom to open doors and even windows myself. Also, why do the train companies ceaselessly pretend that trains are aircraft, in the worst possible way? You can't get on them any more until the gates are opened at the last minute. The seats are crammed against each other, often lined up with windowless bulkheads, and the sociable old compartments are gone.

As for the lavatories, I am of course glad at the better facilities for the disabled but not so pleased at the way these ultra-modern affairs tend to go out of order and lock themselves, and at washbasins apparently designed to spray their users with water and then pour it on to the floor. I could go on.

But the sandwich slander, and all that goes with it, is symbolic of a deeper problem revealed in a fine recent history of BR by the transport expert Christian Wolmar.

Attitudes to BR are distorted by myths and false memories. BR was created in a moment of great national poverty in 1948. It was dragged together from the devastated ruins of the wartime railways, pounded to pieces by endless war traffic and badly damaged by bombing. It was killed off in 1994 just when it was starting to succeed. In its short life, BR had taken huge steps to serve the nation, endured painful manpower and track cuts (mostly mistaken and foolish), and brought in modern and efficient management.

Its reward was to be subjected to a foredoomed, politically-driven break-up, unique in the world, which introduced chaos in the name of competition.

The John Major scheme ended up costing the British taxpayer far more each year than the old BR. Most of the private operators, who milked it in good times, cleared off as soon as the going got tough.

As for the ludicrous claims that privatisation increased traffic, a well-run railway would have expanded far more, opening new lines and stations, running longer and more frequent trains.

But the real problem of our railways does not stem from nationalisation, a system that has worked well in many countries. A Transport Department wholly in love with motorways, cars and lorries will not let the railways compete fairly with roads.

Government pressure has, for many decades, forced the railways to choke off extra business by raising fares, while billions are spent instead on expanding the highway network (which then immediately clogs up, see the M25), and officialdom pretends that this is not a subsidy to drivers and road hauliers.

If we want a good railway, we must demand one from all parties and not be bamboozled with silly talk about mythical stale BR sandwiches.


  1. Fleet Street's most Corbynista columnist.

    1. Where he differs from Corbyn, he almost always agrees with George Galloway.