The future of the railways – a Liberal view

Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a People’s Railway has sparked interest and support, tinged with more than a little nostalgia for a past that really didn’t exist. Those who hanker after British Rail were clearly not there. It was the butt of national jokes about punctuality, cancellations, strikes and stale sandwiches. It was also serving a transport market very different from today. Rail journeys in Britain have doubled since 1997 and are set to continue rising rapidly. Freight traffic increases every year too. Our rail lines are the busiest and most intensively used in Europe if not the world. Britain has the only growing rail market in Europe. So when people adversely compare our structure with that in France or Germany it is worth remembering that they are declining businesses while every aspect of Brtish railways is growing fast and needs to do so, because of our growing population and if we are to have a successful economy.

As Liberal Democrats we strongly support the railways for environmental reasons and we advocate major investment, which is decades overdue. We are lagging behind most of the rest of Europe on both electrification and high speed lines. But that is down not to the private ownership of our railways but to the lack of long term vision and investment in infrastructure by successive governments. In the Coalition Government we were responsible for introducing the biggest programme of investment in rail since Victorian times. If we had been in government alone we would have invested even more and we will fight for every inch of track which is currently under threat from the Tory Government’s “Pause” on big rail projects.

What we will certainly not do, is to call for the Government to spend tens of billions of pounds to buy back the railways from the private sector. Corbynomics will not solve the problems on our railways but instead drain investment from the industry. What customers worry about is the quality of service, not who owns it. We believe in business and the power of competition to get the best outcome for customers. But it must be competition that is properly structured and strongly regulated and there are plenty of aspects of the current set-up that fail these tests and we want to change.

Network Rail is government owned and I believe the Government’s plan to reprivatise it has more to do with dogma than efficiency. Many of its current problems were inherited from their privately owned predecessor Railtrack. Network Rail needs reform not another change of ownership with all the disruption that brings. Above all we need major investment in new track, dualling schemes, electrification, reopening some old lines, new signalling systems to allow more frequent trains and HS2 of course. And we need investment in skills, both technical and managerial. Passengers, particularly commuters, are rightly angry about overcrowded trains and we need all these investments if we are to provide the extra services and seats we need.

There are many ways in which we should improve the franchising system and I would argue these can be easily implemented under the current system and would lead to major improvements in the quality of service. It’s largely to do with how you write the contract and in the past, not enough emphasis has been put on quality issues. Public sector transport authorities as well as the private sector should be able to bid for franchises. Indeed devolution of rail powers and provision is on the way in several areas. Why shouldn’t the South East of England or Greater Manchester operate on a Transport for London model where the only publicly owned piece is the Tube and all the rest is franchised, but the powers are there to ensure an integrated and efficient system? And there are a host of other things which can transform our railways – smart ticketing, modernised and safer stations, and a more transparent fare structure, just for starters.

Corbyn’s “Back to the Future” proposals concentrate on the ownership not the customer. I believe our railways need investment and train operating companies need to put more effort into improving life for passengers, and that needs big money and long term vision, not a change of ownership. Make no mistake our railways are thriving, and that is their problem.

* Jenny Randerson is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and is the party's front bench spokesperson on transport.

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48 Comments

  • The elephant in the room is HS2. It’s not needed. We could achieve most of the benefit at a fraction of the cost by re-opening the GCR (designed and built with gentle curves) that serves actual communities and has mostly pre-existing infrastructure. The balance could then be spent on improving and reopening other lines and other necessary investment. The experience of the continent is that high-speed lines starve investment from other parts of the network. Have you ever been on French or German local railways?

  • Gwynfor Tyley 28th Sep '15 - 10:33am

    Railway is a natural monopoly – none of the asserted advantages of private ownership cannot be replicated under public ownership whilst many of the disadvantages, eg investment and coordination can be.

  • As a young transport professional, I believe this piece sums up my views on the sector. The issue is too focused on ownership rather than solving the current problems. Re-nationalisation of the Railways will not eliminate the ongoing complaints.

    Looking forward to more pieces on Lib dems transport policy views,

  • Neil Sandison 28th Sep '15 - 10:43am

    Good article Jenny but we do need to link this to our housing and infrastructure policies .Should we build 300,OOO new homes and 10 new garden cities and towns then those new homes need good access to all modes of transport including rail if we are not to choke to death on the pollution from dirty diesels on congested roads .Our policy in government should be applauded but we cannot rest on our laurels . Developers and councils are interested in sustainable transport networks this becomes particularly important if you are looking at new large conurbations to meet your 5 year land supply. If you look at the history of the railways it was largely driven the supply needs of producers coupled with the desire of local communities for more efficient transport corridors .The private sector rose to the challenge those public /private partnerships worked it is as you say how you draw up the contract for mutual benefit.

  • Neil Sandison 28th Sep '15 - 11:31am

    TCO .Unfortunately most of the old Great Central Railway line has now been heavily built upon with major housing estates now sitting on where the lines used to be .The levels of individual compensation ,the rebuilding of those homes in a different location and rebuilding the embankments many of which have now collapsed may now make it so expensive as to be uneconomical .Time really has moved on since 1953 when most of the line was closed down as uneconomical. We regularly here this red herring in our part of the midlands but realise the nostalga doesn’t live up to the reality .

  • Jenny, please tell me why the privatised railways costs infinitely more than the former British Rail? The taxpayer is paying through the nose to subsidise private monopolies at a rate far greater than the former nationalised service and fares are the highest in Europe. Had British Rail had the level of subsidy now enjoyed by the private sector, it could have built a rail network greatly superior to the current system. I am not nostalgic for some golden age, but BR was the most efficient railway in Europe. Its problems were caused by deliberate underfunding to make it seem a candidate for selling off.
    Also please explain how not renewing franchises when they end is going to cost billions? If the government simply reverts franchises to the state, when they end, then no costs will be incurred. There is no need to take back the rolling stock companies because they can continue as is. Yes, the reassembly of a national rail service will take time, but the benefits will be worth it.
    A rejuvenated national railway with good financial support from the government (something that was denied British Rail) will be able to build a national railway we can be proud of with ticket prices that can be afforded by all and integrated services that link up.

  • Dave Orbison 28th Sep '15 - 12:19pm

    “Corbyn wants to take us back to the 1970’s- ‘Back to the Future’. Hilarious. If privatisation and free markets have worked so well why have we got any problems today? Why are there issues with rolling stock, capacity, and cleanliness – these are all quality issues are they not?

    The public don’t want public ownership you say? But actually in poll after poll, they do.

    Why should the state provide the infrastructure and subsidies in order for the free market to extract profit? Could not that profit be more usefully used by rather than paying dividends, be diverted to addressing the quality issues that exist? If Germany and France can live with public ownership of railways I’m sure I can.

    I simply don’t buy that a fragmented business can work in the best interests of the nation as a whole. As for back to the future… – rather than pick the 1970’s, you well you may as well look at the railways pre nationalisation – starved of investment, bailed out by the government when they fail – not so better off are we?

    Footnote: Actually, post nationalisation saw a huge investment – shift from steam to diesel and the electrification. Post 1980’s (hint the dogma of the Thatcher years) investment crashed. Someone pointed previously to the falling numbers of rail passengers since the 1950’s – this may be due to something called the motor car.

  • Stephen Howse 28th Sep '15 - 12:51pm

    “We believe in business and the power of competition to get the best outcome for customers.”

    A lovely platitude, but where exactly is the scope for the ‘power of competition’ on the railways? The competition is not amongst different rail operators and lines, it’s between rail and other modes of transport.

  • There are some competing railway routes e.g. Euston and Marylebone to Birmingham and Paddington and Waterloo to Exeter but the Government seems reluctant to assist the secondary route in the latter case. Even limited competition could encourage new ideas and improvements if allowed to do so.

  • nvelope2003 28th Sep '15 - 1:04pm

    European railways do have some excellent premium services but many of the secondary routes are very poor even compared to UK railways which in many cases are much better.

    What percentage of those who advocate nationalisation actually use railways except perhaps on rare occasions ? Many people never use them at all – I think they get their ideas about railways from sensationalist newspapers highlighting the failures inevitable in all human endeavours when most trains are not overcrowded and run on time.

  • Neil Bradbury 28th Sep '15 - 1:10pm

    I don’t think Labour are proposing buying anything back but taking toc s back into public ownership when their franchises come to an end. The key question is where does Labour stand on investment in the railways? Who owns it is not that important. Re: HS2 will someone just build it so we can talk about HS3 and 4? We do seem to dawdle on projects like this

  • Rose-tinted glasses or not, am not sure that BR was any worse than the current mess, but perhaps it depends how often you use the trains (I commute every day). Privatisation has failed if that view is generally held, and it fails to ensure too that profits are reinvested into services adequately, rather than creamed off. It has also failed to see fare prices benefit from ‘competition’ and has failed too to prevent massive taxpayer subsidies. So why support the status quo? Corbyn’s plan, to let the current contracts lapse, seems sensible to me.
    We absolutely should oppose the selling off of networkrail which, if I recall correctly, is only publicly owned anyway because of disasters! Yet again, the private sector gets the gain, the public purse the pain.

  • Matt (Bristol) 28th Sep '15 - 2:21pm

    Thanks, Jenny, I’m immensely reassured by the lines about increasing regional control and the possibility of local/regional authorities as operators (of freight as well?) but obviously there is a potential tug-of-war there with more powers potentially implying a greater role in regulation/franchising…

    The commitment to not cheer on the Tories if they seek to sell off Network Rail is crucial.

    I’ll freely admit that endlessly refighting the battles of thte past if not necessarily fruitful, but I am wary about your putting the boot into the nationalisation era (‘those who hanker after British Rail were clearly not there. It was the butt of national jokes about punctuality, cancellations, strikes and stale sandwiches) when as you admit, there was a ‘lack of long term vision and investment in infrastructure by successive governments’ going back generations. If private enterprise is to be exonerated of fauly on these grounds, then I think we should maybe not be so hard on public enterprise either.

    It seems to me that British Rail inherited a fractured, distrusting mess of knackered, bombed-out, war-damaged private railway companies, fought its way through a messy experiment in central planning and multiple reorganisaitons during which made several mistakes were made, and by the financial crisis of the 70s the intiative, the public trust a clear sense of purpose for the railways as a national network had almost fatally been lost.

    But I don’t know if it is provable that it was nationalisation that is inherently to blame for that, any more than if the railways had remained in private hands over that period, when they may have face the same problems and made equally disastrous mistakes.

  • “HS2 will someone just build it so we can talk about HS3 and 4? We do seem to dawdle on projects like this”

    You’ve obviously not been paying attention, the project is proceeding pretty much to plan! The Coalition government spent circa £1bn on HS2, between 2010 and 2015 on HS2, doing necessary pre-on-site work, like surveying the proposed route, drawing up plans etc. Activities prior to 2010 were more conceptual, with the route being a simple line between London and Birmingham on a postcard size map of the UK. So the debate around HS2 has gone on in parallel to work actually being done. Obviously, commencing work on the construction phase is dependent on a Bill getting through Parliament, but as yet no one is saying that the project has slipped…

  • A Social Liberal 28th Sep '15 - 4:59pm

    Actually, until recently I used the railway at least twice a week to get to and from the RBL offices in Leeds as well as having travelled down to London several times in the last year – and I am vociferous in my support for renationalisation.

    Why must it cost so much to bring back into public hands – if we wait until each licence ends and we don’t renew then we will not incur the cost of paying each private company off. If we pay the subsidy which was due each private company for the remaining time that their licence was current then it would cost us no more than if we waited for the licences to run out.

  • Simon Horner 28th Sep '15 - 5:54pm

    There are no private operators offering passenger services from my local station. The choice is between Dutch Railways (Scotrail) and German Railways (Cross-Country).

    I am old enough to remember the old British Railways. It was a long way from being perfect but it seems to have cost the taxpayer a lot less than what we have now – and you didn’t need a mortgage to buy a ticket on the day of travel.

    It was also better integrated into the European rail network. I fondly remember buying a ticket from Florence to Pitlochry which covered the whole journey (albeit with a separate voucher for the ferry).

  • @ Jenny Randerson …. ” So when people adversely compare our structure with that in France or Germany it is worth remembering that they are declining businesses while every aspect of Brtish railways is growing fast and needs to do so, because of our growing population and if we are to have a successful economy”.

    Sorry, lots of assertion but no evidence, Jenny. If the nationalised German and French railways are such rubbish – why do we allow them (together with the Dutch nationalised railways to run so much of our so called privatised railways ? They are in fact, already part nationalised by Germany, Holland and France . Most of the rest are owned by an off shore non-dom billionaire resident in the Virgin Islands.

    As for public opinion, the latest You Gov poll show that by 60-20% British people support renationalising the railways so they are run in the public sector rather than by private companies. UKIP, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters all support the idea, by 70-22%, 78-6% and 60-18% respectively. Conservatives are divided 42-42%..

    Sorry, Jenny,but in the words of Tim Farron, I’m afraide you don’t speak for me, you don’t speak for the party (60% to 18%) and you don’t speak for the majority of the British people. Time this was discussed as a resolution at the next Party Conference. As for HS2 – put it in the same financial fantasy as Trident.

  • Max Wilkinson 28th Sep '15 - 10:36pm

    Great article Jenny.

    A liberal railways policy must involve a publicly owned track and private companies running services in competition with one another. As far as I can see, the government resists this in favour of regional monopolies because it makes more money from the franchise system. We need to smash it, but not by burdening taxpayers with running a railway that can be operated perfectly well by the private sector.

    Those who advocate state ownership ‘because Europe does it well’ should compare our park time journey subsidies to those in Europe. I’m fairly sure our subsidy is much lower, meaning the price of commuter journeys is borne by the traveller, not the taxpayer. That seems very liberal to me.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Sep '15 - 8:38am

    Simon Horner: I agree with you on how ticket integration with other EU railways has gone downhill lately. However, I don’t think this can be held entirely at the door of UK rail policy; it is an EU-wide problem. The introduction of high-speed rail services, such as Eurostar and Thalys, that use pure airline-style ticketing (where you always buy a ticket for a specific train service, rather than a ticket that permits travel from A to B by any appropriate train) undermined the old “Common Journey Tariff” (known by its French initialism TCV, not to be confused with the similarly-initialed French high-speed train service) system for international rail ticketing to the point where it is virtually moribund for much of Europe. Additionally, EU rail policy tends to emphasise competition at the expense of ticket integration, particularly for cross-border services. Rail regulators are supposed to ensure that different operators play nicely with each other, but in practice this does not always happen, with some (notably in France and Italy) favouring the national state-owned operator. So don’t think that they necessarily do things better on mainland Europe!
    The UK national rail ticketing system would be a good model for a new Europe-wide through-ticketing system. Richard Gadsden suggests how this could be done in a comment on an earlier article on rail policy
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/the-peoples-railway-47638.html#comment-379832

  • Alex Macfie 29th Sep '15 - 9:10am

    In the 1980s British Rail was given considerable operational independence even while being starved of cash, which is why it was able to become more efficient (it wasn’t *just* about being starved of cash!). Closures happened while civil servants were in charge; in the 1980s BR was able to develop its network on what little investment it had. This led, for example, to the modernisation of Marylebone station (enabling Chiltern Railways to become the thriving operation it si now) at a time when the government and Whitehall mandarins were talking of turning it into a car park!

  • Neil Sandison 29th Sep '15 - 10:08am

    If we are not careful we could fall into the negative message trap .We should be celebrating the fact that more passengers than ever are using our rail networks .more freight than ever is transferring to rail .I would point out that the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal(DIRFT) is a roaring success and is looking to start its third phase of development bring a significant number of real jobs to the Midlands .Developers are interested in new stations to support housing growth. Railways like the NHS get a bad press from time to time but just talking them down does not improve the service .At the moment Corbyn thinks he has a popular proposal what I have yet to see is some viable policy and investment to back it up.

  • Ronald Murray 29th Sep '15 - 10:44am

    Here in Scotland weare still waiting for a direct service to the channel tunnel. With no chance of getting it even less a high
    Speed link that’s only for England.

  • Can opponents of public ownership please explain why, if it works so well in Switzerland, why it can’t work in the UK?

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Sep '15 - 1:09pm

    RC, I think you have a good point with regard to ideological dislike of public vs private (like SImon Shaw, I’m inclined towards a fudge somewhere in the middle).

    But let’s look at the Swiss system and its many anomalies and note how different it is from what most of us think of as ‘nationalisation’ in the British experience, or from what we have here now (which as I have said before is not classic ‘privatisation’):

    – most of the system is owned and operated by the federal government

    – There are a great number of private companies alongside that, however, owning track and operating both friehgt and passenger trains

    – There is a great deal of through-operation and integrated planning between all the operators

    – The largest ‘private’ operator (BLS) is, I think, part-owned by the Bernese regional government (not the federal government)

    – The whole thing is shored-up by very tight restrictions on how much freight can go by road, which makes railfreight more profitable and drives traffic onto the railways

    – The physical shape of Switzerland (all those valleys, all those lakes, all those tight mountain passes) requires heavy investment and planning from central government to maintain railway infrastructure (they have an awful lot of tunnels) but also makes mass-transit public transport by road much more complex to organise, and the railways more viable competitors than over here (In the UK, if the train makes you go via C to get from A to B, you just get in a bus or car to cut the corner. In Switzerland, the road might go the same way as the train anyway, but slower, as there’s a ruddy gurt alp in the way).

    – The Swiss distrust of the outside world and the possibility it might invade which has been a fixed feature of government thinking since Napoleon leaves them with an ideological requirement to secure the main transport routes in and out of the country wherever possible. So there’s a nationalist ideology that accepts state control of transport and infrastructure in a way there isn’t here.

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Sep '15 - 1:13pm

    Anyway, my point is, when it comes to railways ‘privatisation’ is not one thing, ‘nationalisation’ is not one thing, there are shades and shades and shades of grey in the ‘middle’ which is where most railway systems worldwide sit. Remember, Labour’s new proposals only commit to have a third of passenger operation (not freight) in public hands by 2025.

    Actually this isn’t BR back again (in the unlikely event it happens), its not the Attlee era, its another ‘somewhere in the middle’ mishmash option, being painted in nice stark black and white colours to get the faithful going (and the unions).

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Sep '15 - 1:54pm

    If there is one issue that can turn die hard Tory commuters into raving socialists it is the proposal to nationalise railways. Nationalising the railways is a popular policy, and that includes those who remember British Rail.
    The article ignores one crucial issue; how expensive it is to travel by rail in this country. We want to reduce our carbon footprint so we should encourage people to travel by train rather than by car, so rail should be cheaper than what it is at the moment.
    I also find it amazing that the author dismisses the ownership of the railways. Why? Isn’t that crazy? I am open to ideas on how that should be done, but surely we should challenge the top down management of the rail companies that are often at logger heads with the rail unions? What about employee ownership? I do not have any practical suggestions myself, but everywhere where it is possible and feasible we should be questioning the ownership of both the private and public sectors, looking at how this can be changed, bring in employees and democratically elected local authorities.
    Come on, we are not in government with the Tories now. Time for some bold thinking, not more of the same.

  • I firmly believe that where it comes to the economy, we should be the party of “whatever works”. Public ownership demonstrably works in other countries, so why reject it out of hand?

    I think the most telling point of Matt Bristol’s comment is this: “So there’s a nationalist ideology that accepts state control of transport and infrastructure in a way there isn’t here”

    And we now have an ideology that says “Nooo, we can’t do that, we’d end up with curly sandwiches and trade unions on the rampage”, without actually looking at the facts. For example the great job DOR did of running the East Coast Mainline. This is a debate mired in ideology and we should be the party of economic pragmatism.

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Sep '15 - 2:42pm

    RC, I prefer personally that public ownership of the infrastructure continue and that public operation be pursued on a regional basis, through transport authorities accountable to local authorities, if possible. I would not therefore class myself as ‘pro-privatisation’. The current party proposals as outlined by Jenny are pretty near to what I want (potentially).

    I would also claim to be a pragmatist. I think the ECML experiment is worth looking at, in that it suggests that parts of the system can be made to work effectively in public hands, but I don’t know if it proves that creating a cross-national, centrally-managed, unitary operator as Corbyn wants to do in the long term, is what will work.

    I think the point I didn’t make well enough is that there has been over 100 years of that ideology in Switzerland, and the money to back it to the hilt, day after day.

    What the the coutnry has to choose between in the current 3 major party railway management proposals is 3 different versions of public-private mishmash. Not as much neoliberal nightmare asset-stripping as claimed, not as much nightmare Stalinist asset-stripping as claimed.

    I entirely agree with you that what Corbyn is proposing shouldn’t be treated as if he is intending to press-gang the entire country into a time machine to a parallel universe that is a nighmare parody of the Winter of Discontent. Doesn’t mean I think his particular version of public-private mishmash is the right one.

  • Peter Parsons 29th Sep '15 - 2:46pm

    Anyone advocating having multiple companies running competing services (e.g. Max Wilkinson 28th Sep ’15 – 10:36pm) needs to propose solutions to make life simple, easy and fair for us rail users. I don’t want to have to deal with multiple competing companies, working out which ticket to buy, and from whom, risking being overcharged because the ticketing structures are complex, risking having to pay twice because I bought a ticket in advance for company A, but turn up to find all their services are running late, so have to use company B (and thus buy a second ticket because advance tickets are non-refundable) to get to where I need to be, or being fined because the ticket I thought was valid (or was told was valid on a website or at a ticket office) turns out not to be.

    As someone who uses the rail system most weeks, what I want from the railways is a service which is reasonably efficient, reasonably reliable (I accept that sometimes things will go wrong, and often those things are outside the control of the railways themselves), but most of all reasonably and simply priced for the end user (me).

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 29th Sep '15 - 3:37pm

    Good to see a commitment to rail but all future projects should be tightly managed and fully costed.

    Jenny talks about British Rail which did have some successes like the InterCity 125 but the other failure not mentioned is a programme of electrification which was not rolling and you had a massive period between the electrification of the WCML and the ECML where there was hardly electrification. Post-War rail policy should be questioned as West Germany invested in rail whereas the UK was nationalising it.After the war we should have invested in the railways including modernising them but the first hint at a modernisation programme was the 1955 Modernisation Plan. Then you had the Beeching cuts and the failure was not protecting the land for future Rail development. Labour at the 1964 Election said they would not cut lines but when Barbara Castle was at Transport she cut. While I am discussing the history then there is historical evidence that when there is an economic downturn the railways were the first to be cut and I fear this will happen again under the Corbyn plan.

    People compare the UK rail system with the French and German rail systems but you cannot make a like for like comparison as they have different structures.

    I agree with many of the points raised in the article: Quality of Service, Network Rail skills and long-term thinking etc. Yet there are some issues that are not raised in this article, the lack of transparency and EU Policy. The current is not open and transparent and more needs to be done on this issue including the financial aspects.

    Transport Policy is a Shared Competence of the EU and its Member States (article 4 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union/TFEU). The EU aspect is not discussed even though the Fourth Rail Package is going through the European Legislative Process.

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Sep '15 - 4:04pm

    Morgan-Ross, not sure what your comparison re: Germany is.

    When Labour in the UK were nationalising the UK railways, (West) Germany – during the Cold War era – had already inherited a nationalised railway network from the pre-war German state. It also had money from the USA to rebuild its railway infrastructure after the Allied bombing campaign.

    You then later reasonably make the point that we cannot directly compare our history with that of France and Germany… so I’m a bit lost? what is the point you are making?

  • nvelope2003 29th Sep '15 - 5:14pm

    Since the privatisation of train operations rail freight has actually increased despite a drop in the carriage of coal which was once the principal freight traffic of the railways. Passenger traffic has more than doubled. How many strikes have caused the complete closure of the National railway system since privatisation compared to the frequent strikes on the entirely state owned London Underground which cause immense problems for those who need to get to work ? Even an overcrowded train would surely be better than none at all or perhaps some might disagree ?

    The parts of the rail system which are still operated by the state have not been so successful. Network Rail has been subject to a great deal of criticism because of its high costs and mistakes. Hundreds of millions have been spent on projects which were delivered either too late such as the platform provided for terminating trains which was not completed until after it was no longer needed, track and signalling changes which are no longer required because the ORR refused to allow the train operator to run the extra trains for which the changes were made after the work was already started ((cost £250 million) etc. It would be too painful to go on.
    The problem with railways is that they have not been subject to competition except from road and air and because of subsidies and militant unions taking advantage of this they have not been forced to develop the changes necessary to cope with the modern world. We can see in other fields such as airline, supermarkets etc, many changes which have benefited customers such as lower prices, extra services and new products which only happened because of competition. With tax payer funded monopolies there is no need to make any changes and the people running them can carry on in the comfortable old ways confident that as some people have to use them they need not fear for their jobs unless some enthusiastic minister who actually knows something about the job he is being paid to do (don’t laugh) starts to “interfere”.

    Of course those who post on here do not wish to know this so I guess I am wasting my time.

  • STEWART EDGE 29th Sep '15 - 8:47pm

    Only two mentions of the East Coast Mainline in the posts. Jenny said ‘Public Sector Transport Authorities as well as the Private Sector should be able to bid for franchises’. I think the coalition made a big mistake not allowing the public sector bid for the East Coast franchise. Can we agree a clear LibDem policy to allow such bids in the future? It seems to me this will ensure the public purse can get some benefit without recreating a public monopoly; we can ensure we have some public sector expertise in an area in which it is clear there will be ongoing subsidies (rather than rely as we do in some other areas on the private sector for informed advice); and if it’s working well we can have public sector bids for more future franchises.

  • nvelope2003 29th Sep '15 - 9:13pm

    Who exactly would the public sector bodies be who could compete for railway franchises and where would their finances come from ?

    Surely the whole point of franchising was to allow private sector money into the railways so that there would be competition and hopefully innovation. There have been successes although not everything has turned out as well as could be hoped for, mainly because the state has imposed restrictions on innovation, even laying down the timetable stating exactly which trains are to operate, although initially it was supposed to be a framework in which alternative services could be provided. The drive for privatisation was because of the rather poor service provided by BR though no doubt enterprising people hoped to make some money – and why not ?
    Some of the bosses of the private train operators have stated that millions could be saved without reducing services, if the Government could relax its grip and the operators could have more say over the activities of Network Rail, which I guess is the main butt of all those complaints about railways. Presumably the Government is afraid that any serious reforms of the railways might provoke strike action which would upset the voters. Freight operations have been reformed but freight does not have votes and the Government would not care if railway freight disappeared as it would help their friends in the road haulage industry so they do not care what the unions do. Any strikes were soon settled.

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 29th Sep '15 - 9:19pm

    @Matt (Bristol) I was trying to make a historical comparison between Deutsche Bundesbhan and British Rail by saying they differed in approaches as you rightly pointed out as the West Germans invested in their rail infrastructure as part of the economic miracle or in German Wirtschaftswunder.

    I should have the point clearer regarding comparing the UK rail system with other European States today as the UK has a different structure than that of France and Germany which is what people do by using the higher fares in Europe and all the rest of the arguments to justify nationalisation.

    On the EU point I made earlier where I mentioned article 4 TFEU, the relevant articles on Transport are articles 90-100 TFEU which the UK has to comply with. Directive 91/440 which said that operations and infrastructure should be separate was used a justification for the 1993 Railways Act

  • Alex Macfie 29th Sep '15 - 9:43pm

    @nvelope2003: Tell me how “competition” would work on the railways for me, a commuter from Outer London working in Inner London (Zone 1). I take the train and Tube every Monday to Friday day into work and back home. I use a travelcard season ticket. I can rest assured that I can take any mainline train or Tube service that I need, and I can vary my route if the travel conditions at any particular time make this necessary. I do not have to worry about whether my season ticket is valid on this or that service: there aren’t tickets for Company A and Company B that I have to choose between, so that if I’m unlucky and my usual operator’s trains are delayed and I have to choose between being late for work or paying to take a train run by the rival operator to the one for which my season ticket is valid. I don’t care about seat comfort (I probably won’t get a seat) or sandwiches (there’s no catering and nor would I be bothered with it for the distance I travel) or wifi (ditto, and anything can wait until I get into work). I just want to get into work as quickly as possible on any suitable transport. How would I benefit from “competition” on the tracks?

    You see, competition works OK, sometimes, for long-distance train services. For commuter or regional services it makes less sense, either because integration is much more useful or because there isn’t enough of a market for competing services. Trains are not planes.

  • Douglas Downie 29th Sep '15 - 10:18pm

    Jenny you comment that ‘Network Rail is government owned and I believe the Government’s plan to reprivatise it has more to do with dogma than efficiency.’

    I don’t think so. I think that if Network Rail had been performing well then the Government would have left well alone – it has plenty of other things it needs to fix without stirring the Network Rail/Railtrack pot again.

    Sady Network Rail hasn’t performed well – and in particular the huge projects that it undertook to perform in the latest Control Period appear to be beyond its capabilities.

    You comment ‘Many of its current problems were inherited from their privately owned predecessor Railtrack.’ Nope. Railtrack inherited massive problems taking over an infrastructure that had been systematically run down. Railtrack then massively underestimated what was needed to be invested, and overestimated its capability to deliver. Railtrack became Network Rail in 2002, since when huge amounts of funding have been poured into the infrastructure. I think 13 years was long enought to fix what was there – and indeed much of it has been fixed. The problem now is more about how to deliver the massivve upgrades that are needed operationally and cost effectively.

    To re-state this in more positive terms – how to get the infrastucture to meet the needs of the fastest growing railway in Europe. Unfortunately Network Rail as currently constituted doesn’t look up to the task.

    You might have thought that the fact that the worst performing part of the railway is directly state owned and control led might have give the re-nationalisers pause for thought. But prejudice and blindness are just as common in opinions about transport as anywhere else.

  • nvelope2003 “Who exactly would the public sector bodies be who could compete for railway franchises and where would their finances come from ?”

    I suggest the markets, specifically our pension funds and other investment houses who are looking for potentially better than bond rates but not full on open market risks. ie. you and me but instead of the Treasury issuing bonds to cover government lending, we lend directly with the government merely acting as a guarantor. So not really any different to the roll they are playing with new nuclear and will be playing if they obtain Chinese investment in HS2…

  • I do think that people mean different things when they say “trains” – not formally, but the archetype of what they think of is different.

    If you commute to work by train every day, then that’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “train”. Being able to buy a season ticket and then hop on the first train that comes is then the key factor, which means ticketing integration – and integrated ticketing means no competition; if company A wants to run cheaper, but less comfortable, trains than company B, but you can get either train on the same ticket, then you can’t travel cheaper on company A.

    If you don’t commute by train, either because you drive, or use the bus, or because you don’t commute to work/education, then you’re still very likely to use long-distance rail services. For those, competition and alternatives are much more of a natural solution. There are three operators running trains from London to Birmingham, two each London to Exeter, Bradford, Sunderland, Crewe, Hull, Edinburgh and Leeds. There will be a second operator to Blackpool in a couple of years. Passengers plan for a specific train for journeys of this length, so buying a ticket in advance for a specific train makes sense – at which point you can have real price competition between operators. It’s easy to start thinking of airlines if this is your primary experience of rail.

    But all those competing operators run on the same set of tracks, have to integrate with the same signalling, all of which limits the choices of operators in ways that just don’t apply to air. And all of that long-distance stuff also has to interact with the commuter services when they get close to a city, which happens at both the London and Birmingham ends of this service; in fact, that London Midland is the outer-London commuter service and the outer-Birmingham commuter service joined together to form a single train.

  • Alex Macfie: Perhaps I did not make it clear that I was referring to competition between those seeking franchises to operate the trains. Clearly a successful franchisee would expect to operate the services it had been awarded in the prescribed area of its network unless it was made clear that train services would be permitted under the open access arrangements.
    Some franchises have been very successful and others less so but we would not have known this without an element of competition. If a train operator performs badly it is unlikely its franchise would be renewed. I seem to recall that Connex disappeared from the scene after an unsatisfactory performance in the South East.

    As you imply it would not be practical to allow other operators to run trains in dense commuter networks but that does not mean that there should not be competition for the award of the franchise for the whole network. London Overground is a franchise which seems to have been very successful compared to what was operated before.

    Open access arrangements have provided useful competition on some routes and so have the operators on alternative lines even to intermediate places which do not have more than one station . Clearly there are also routes where traffic is so limited that competition would be impractical. This also applies to bus routes where it might make sens to reintroduce co-ordinated timetables so that you do not have the situation where competitors run buses at about the same time.

  • Forgot to say that it was good to read Jenny Randerson’s piece and to see that at least some people recognise the success of the British railway system in the last few years.

  • Good news, but best to keep the fingers crossed for a while longer:

    “The electrification of two railway lines is to be restarted after the projects were halted so a review could be carried out, the government says.
    Work on the TransPennine Express Railway – between Manchester and York – and Midland Mainline – from London to Sheffield – was paused in June.
    Sir Peter Hendy, Network Rail chairman, said the “temporary pause” had “given us the space to develop a better plan”.
    Transport minister Patrick McLoughlin said work could now resume immediately.”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-34402592

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