Halfway through the launch of Rail Partners, I had one of those jumping out of the bath moments which made me realise what was wrong with the whole concept. Rail Partners, you may wish to know, is the new organisation that is taking over some of the functions of the ridiculously named Rail Delivery Group when Great British Railways finally emerges from the Williams-Shapps shotgun marriage. It’s a bit complicated but essentially Rail Partners will take over ‘the policy and advocacy’ functions of the old RDG, on behalf of its members who are the train operator groups and freight companies. Oddly, full membership cannot include the publicly run train operators such as LNER and Northern because, according to Andy Bagnall, the chief executive of Rail Partners, this would be inappropriate as they are arms of government and cannot be seen to be lobbying. They will, though, be able to benefit from the work on technical services which Rail Partner will provide.
The need for this little bit of convoluted explanation says it all, really. The whole Keith and Grant love-in was supposed to be about reducing complexity and simplifying the way the industry functions. Yet, already the cracks in that idea are emerging and soon they will be as wide as those in a dried up reservoir.
And that was my Eureka moment. It was stimulated by having just read an email from
Peter Vandermar, who had just read of my book on British Rail. He is retired railwayman, who said that at times he found the book quite emotional because of its descriptions of the way privatisation had damaged the railways and wrecked a perfectly well-functioning British Rail. He reckoned the whole sell off had been developed as way of ‘of cocking a snook at real or imagined “enemies” [which was deemed] more important than running important national organisations efficiently and reliably’. He added that while, as a Dutchman, he is aware that every European railway is run in an idiosyncratic way, none of them were ‘prepared to wreck the nation’s public transport interest’ through ideology.
And so, as I sat there listening to the very articulate Bagnall setting out the plans for Rail Partners,
I realised that the bastards – excuse me using the language of John Major – are simply repeating the whole exercise. None of what they are doing in restructuring the railways has anything to do with improving them, making them more efficient, or helping passengers. The objective is never about any of that. They don’t care. They are not starting with a clean sheet and assessing the various ways of producing a good railway but rather they are trying to fit the railways into a structure determined by their ideology.
And that means the contradictions will never be resolved and the simple structure that was supposed to be at the root of the reforms can never be brought about. This is immediately apparent from the three key challenges that Bagnall says is facing the industry: attracting customers back, reducing the need for taxpayer support and developing stronger public private partnerships.
The first of these is all very well except that if the government were serious about it, they would adopt some of the measures being deployed across Europe (as set out in the other section on these pages).But the other two are simply more of the same as we have had in a quarter of a century of privatisation. The need to reduce taxpayer support ‘by increasing efficiency and cutting costs’ is setting up the railways to fail. Why not, instead, recognise that the crucial role the railways can play in supporting the Net Zero initiative may well cost the taxpayer a bit more? Surely, every one who chooses to go by train rather than car is supporting that aim and therefore so what if there is a bit of an extra cost?
It is, though, the third aspect which betrays the fact that the current Government – like most of its predecessors – has no understanding of the finances of the railways. Effectively, private sector involvement and investment has to be paid for by taxpayers and given the collapse of the franchising system, surely the time has come to give it a break and simply accept that some services are better provided by the government directly. It is a source of great amusement that the train operators currently under state ownership like LNER and Northern are doing the best in attracting people back onto the trains. Is it too much to ask that the lessons of this are learnt – it is the simplicity of the relationship between government and these directly operated TOCs that make this possible.
From these three challenges, Bagnall has derived five key targets for the new Great British Railways. Boosting freight, moving towards net zero and improving the customer experience are all motherhood and apple pie – but then we get back into the sludge with the other two – ‘Great British Railways must be a guiding mind, not a controlling mind’ and ‘The new rail contracts are key to an effective public private partnership’. Again, ideology rules. British Rail was successful because it was given the freedom to make decisions and left, as Bagnall said at the press conference, to its own devices once the budget had been set. This concept of the way that GBR will operate means it will be taking orders of government from above and then having to accommodate what the private sector companies want to do from below. It will barely be able to guide, yet along control. The nature of the contracts has not yet been determined but the private companies are seeking to have incentives to increase revenue, and once you go down that path, you are effectively recreating the whole failed franchise fiasco.
There is all to play for – who knows what the new transport secretary and, indeed, the prime minister may want to do. I suspect if it is Rishi Sunak all this may be irrelevant as there could be a swathe of cuts the like of which would embarrass Beeching. I am probably contradicting myself But we need to remain optimistic, hoping that just maybe there will be someone who understands that the key to improving the efficiency and efficacy of the railways is simplicity and not ideology.
The imagination is all abroad
This is the time for imagination – though watching the Tory leader contenders, it is difficult to see any coming from ministers. Well, we have to try anyway. Just look at what is happening abroad in terms of trying to get people back on to the railways.
Let’s start with the modest efforts of Belgian Railways (everything about Belgium has to be modest!). Until the end of August, Belgian Railways has an excellent and simple deal: two people travel for the price of one on almost any journey. No advance booking necessary; you can buy online or at the ticket office. The Duo Ticket effectively gives half-price rail journeys, in first or second class, so long as the two travellers stay together. The one exception is the journeys to or from Brussels Airport station, as each passenger must pay the airport premium.
OK, Belgian is a small country and there are not going to be any enormously long journeys. Nevertheless, it is a commendable effort, but over the border in Germany they have done better. Essentially, monthly travel across all public transport Called 9 for 90, it means that for a three months period, people just have to pay for one 9 euro ticket – and the losses will be made up by a special ‘energy cost relief project’. The result has been a reduction in car use and therefore a big impact on the environment. A survey of towns and cities across the nation showed that 23 out of 26 had reduced congestion and traffic numbers.
Now Spain has joined in the fun by announcing that tickets for short and medium length journeys will be free for four months starting on September 1, paid for by a windfall tax pm electricity, oil and gas companies. This is an addition to a 50 per cent reduction in public transport fares, paid by a combination of regional and central government.
What is so depressing about all this is the fact that all that is ever mentioned in the UK is to cut fuel duty for motorists, apart from a very random and poorly structured ‘ticket sale’. Oh but we can’t afford this sort of thing, ministers say.
Well get this: the 5p cut already brought in Rishi Sunak in March has cost the Exchequer £2.4bn – and there is talk among some of the Conservative leadership candidates to repeat the exercise. Well, total rail fares annually are in the order of £10bn annually in a non-Covid affected year, so such a cut could be used to reduce them across the board by a quarter or more – or better still rationalise them in the way I have suggested through the use of a ‘basic fare’ and a far simpler system understandable to all. Alternatively, bus annual revenue is around £5bn, so two 5p cuts on fuel duty are the equivalent of free bus fares for everyone for a year. Can you imagine the positive effects of say using half that money to cut fares by 50 per cent – and greatly increasing concessions, say. But no, we are stuck in the wrong loop, in which only motorists count and the rest of the population are seen as sad losers who do not deserve financial help for their transport. Again, scope for the Labour party to do something exciting here.