Tories try to have it all ways

It’s taken a long time but at last the Tories have produced a document setting out their rail policy. Chris Grayling, when he was shadow transport secretary, had promised to produce one nearly two years ago but he was prevented from doing so because he had committed himself to vertical integration and that proved too radical for his colleagues.

So his successor, Teresa Villiers, has set out a policy that suggests little change but is couched in radical language. She reiterates the party’s commitment to a high speed line but this has now become Labour policy, too, and Lord Adonis has taken the wind out of her sails by suggesting a bipartisan approach.

On franchises, Ms Villiers tries to have it both ways, arguing that there should not be any radical change to the structure but then suggests much longer franchises. That would, in fact, represent a very significant change. If the idea is to encourage operators to invest in the railway, then 20 year franchises would be a minimum but like her predecessor she then suggests that there would have to be breakpoints in case a franchisee starts underperforming.

But that’s a fundamental contradiction and why the role of franchising has never been properly worked out. If operators were given long franchises with, as Ms Villiers wants, less meddling from the government, then they would have free rein to fleece passengers and government alike. Moreover, she has said nothing in her paper about risk. If revenue risk remained with operators, what would happen if they started losing out badly, as may indeed happen in the next few months.

It is, in a way, not her fault. Trying to tinker around with the franchising system can never work because it is fundamentally flawed and its purpose has never been defined. Still, at least she deserves commendation for having published a policy, something that the Tories do not do very often.

As an aside, while on the subject of the Tories, for those who missed it, the ‘Mao Zedong award’ for loyalty to the cause must go to the hapless Central Office toadie who changed the Wikipedia entry for Titian because David Cameron at Question Time mistakenly suggested that the painter had lived until the age of 90, whereas in fact he died at the age of 86. Who says we live in an age of non-believers? You could not make it up.

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