The Great British Railway is a fudge riding for a fail

We all knew it was a mistake and we told them so. When the Tory government pushed through the privatisation of the railways a quarter of a century ago, it involved splitting up British Rail into more than 100 companies. At the time, everyone, from Tory backbenchers and the Labour party to British Rail managers, warned that it was a reckless plan that would cost money and do nothing to improve the railways. The title of the book I wrote about it at the time said it all: ‘On the Wrong Line’.

Ever since, I’ve been writing about all the crazy aspects of the privatised railway that have made life difficult for passengers and cost taxpayers billions. The examples are endless: how buying a ticket has been made more difficult by the emphasis on competition rather than coordination; how train companies have been receiving millions in compensation because the tracks were improved so that their services could run faster; how millions are wasted because 400 bean counters are employed to work out who is to blame for delays.

Now, astonishingly, the Government agrees with me and my fellow critics. Ministers have been remarkably open about the failings of the system that their predecessors created and have put forward a plan that rather looks like the one Jeremy Corbyn suggested at the 2019 election.

Much of the wording of the lengthy document published yesterday could have been extracted verbatim from the articles I have written over the years:

  • ‘The railways lack a guiding focus on customers, coherent leadership and strategic direction’
  • ‘They are too fragmented, too complicated, and too expensive to run’.
  • ‘Innovation is difficult. Incentives are often perverse’
  • ‘The sector lacks clear strategic direction’

There are some amusing examples of the ridiculous situations this fragmentation of the railway has created. The document mentions an incident when a train hit a pheasant, causing a delay. Who was responsible for the compensation? Well, apparently the train operator was liable for small birds, while Network Rail, the infrastructure company, had to pay up when trains hit big birds. But they could not agree on whether a pheasant was a small or big bird. Rather frustratingly, the document fails to tell us who in the end coughed up.

And so on. Anyone would think from the sweeping criticism in the document that this complicated structure had been created by a Labour government which the Tories were now having to dismantle. But no, it was all the idea of the Conservative administration led by John Major in the mid 1990s. They didn’t listen to any of the critics and broke up British Rail, which independent research had shown was the most efficient railway in Europe. Indeed, the InterCity service developed by BR was highly profitable and even Network SouthEast, which provided the London commuter services that traditionally had lost hundreds of millions annually, broke even.

Instead, the government sold off chunks of the railway very cheaply and let in a whole host of private companies that were interested only in short-term profits rather than long-term investment. The only surprise is that it has taken 25 years to work out that it was all a bad idea.

Now the very same political party that broke up British Rail because it was supposedly inefficient, hidebound by tradition and unaccountable, wants to stick Humpty Dumpty back together again. This is back to the future, as emphasised by the choice of logo to be used to portray this new organisation. That will be the famous double arrow invented by the inefficient and unimaginative BR in the 1960s and which has remained the familiar and much loved sign on maps to denote a train station. And all those horrible names like Avanti, Abellio, and Arriva will disappear

There is no doubt that there will be benefits of the new structure. Buying tickets will be made easier because it will be possible to do it through the National Rail Enquiries website, something it was deliberately prevented from doing at privatisation because of the Tories’ emphasis on wanting different providers to compete with each other. Millions will be saved by not having arguments about delays. The chaotic situation in 2018 caused by the lack of coordination between those drawing up the timetables and the company operating the trains will not be repeated. There will be a ’guiding mind’ to think through this type of planning.

Despite all this, ideology still stops us getting the sensible railway passengers deserve. Instead of simply running the trains themselves, Great British Railways will contract out services to private companies, most of which are actually owned by foreign state railways such as the French SNCF and the German Deutsche Bahn. This will add cost and complexity. At the last election, Labour suggested simply renationalising the whole system. This is three-quarters of the way there, but it would have been better to go the whole hog.

What’s the big deal?

The biggest change is that the system of franchising has been abolished. No longer will private companies keep the money from fares in return for having bid to run parts of the railway. Instead, they will be paid a set percentage, around 2 per cent, for operating the service but the fares income will be handed over to the government. The new system has been made necessary because of the drop in passenger numbers during the pandemic.

Is Great British Railways simply the old BR under another name

Not quite. BR owned and ran the whole system from engineering and maintenance to operating the trains and ticketing. Some aspects, such as manufacture and ownership of the rolling stock and major trackwork, have been privatised and the operation of the trains will be contracted out. However, decisions on investment and future strategy of the industry will be made by the new organisation, as they were by BR.

Will fares be cheaper?

Unlikely. There will be slightly more flexible arrangements for people choosing to travel to work only two or three days per week, but overall fares will probably continue to rise by the level of inflation or more as they have done for years. It will, though, be easier to buy tickets through the National Rail Enquiries website.

Will people notice any difference?

Yes. The trains will be branded as Great British Railways and there should be much better coordination between the different parts of the network, making it easier to buy tickets and register complaints.