Perhaps it shouldn’t matter. Mark Harper, in his keynote speech, went for that old trope of mentioning British Rail sandwiches as a way of dismissing the organisation. It might be trivial. Harper is new to the railways, so decided to use that hardy perennial cliché as a safe comfort blanket in alien territory.
But actually it does matter. For two reasons. First, it shows that the Tory government is more intent on debunking the other lot than on setting out its own vision. It’s lazy and actually ignorant because, and this is the second reason, it’s simply not true. Harper said in his speech: ‘Nationalisation was as dynamic and forward looking as the British Rail sandwich – soggy wrapped in a clingfilm of backward thinking and unfit for consumption in the 21st century’.
British Rail made mistakes in its half century of existence but, as I relate in my book, British Rail, a new history, it also succeeded in numerous aspects. The structure that was created in its final few years, with three passenger bodies that were given considerable commercial freedom – InterCity, Network SouthEast and Regional Railways – was successful and the Conservative government will struggle to find a better one. Contrary to what Harper said, BR managers of the time showed considerable commercial nous while also ensuring BR fulfilled its social role. As for the sandwiches, as any ful knoweth, they were greatly improved by the intervention of Prue Leith who was on the board of BR and developed the shrink wrapped sandwich, with many interesting flavours. Certainly BR’s on board food offering before privatisation was far better and more extensive than anything available today, and it was also responsible for a range of station catering with brands such as Casey Jones and Upper Crust.
Harper even got the old trope totally wrong. The old joke which actually originated in a 1980s Two Ronnies sketch was that the sandwiches had curly edges which was equally untrue but somehow, like the ‘wrong kind of snow’, words never spoken by a BR manager, became viral (long before the term was ever used!). Harper also wrongly accused ‘Labour of having plans to spend billions of taxpayers’ money buying out the private sector’. In fact, abolishing franchising – which has sort of been done already – is effectively cost free and would save huge amounts of money by reducing the complexity of the system.
Therefore Harper was doing what supporters of privatisation have been doing for the past quarter of a century, relying on their arguments by criticising the past. Yet, recent history has exposed the flaws of the franchising system. First there was the May 2018 timetable fiasco which led to the review and the resulting Williams Shapps report. Then, with franchising already on its last legs, Covid killed off the system.
Harper’s speech was supposed to be a major launch of the Government’s rail policy, setting out its vision for a post Covid, post reform agenda with Great British Railways at its heart. To call it a damp squib is an insult to Guy Fawkes. There was one tasty morsel, a suggestion that return fares would be abolished in favour of two singles. This had been trailed in the Sunday papers sowing confusion as it was unclear whether this would be a hidden increase. In fact, it was a rare piece of good news because it was a genuine attempt to reduce the cost of a single fare to half the return price, but was far less wide-ranging than the leak had suggested. Rather than being an across the board permanent change, Harper merely referred to extending the experiment, which had been initiated by the state-run LNER, to ‘other parts of the LNER’ network before ‘carefully considering’ whether to expand it further. So hardly earth shattering, just a mere mini-step in the right direction.
And as for the future? Well all we got was the effective move away from the model that had been set out in the William Shapps report. The ‘guiding mind’ which it is supposed to set up will be less all-powerful and there will be more of a role for the private sector. However, detail was there none. There would, for example, be greater encouragement of Open Access but given that after 25 years of privatisation, there are fewer than 50 trains per day, compared with 20,000 franchised services, it is pretty much an irrelevance. And while he hinted that the rules about revenue abstraction might be relaxed, I doubt the Treasury which currently rules the roost, would be very pleased.
Another suggestion is that ‘We will expand commercial opportunities around land and property
near stations’. Well, the British Rail started selling off properties in the 1980s, so that is hardly a new idea. Then he saidf ‘I want the private sector to play its most important role in our railways
yet. To reinvigorate the sector, drive innovation and most importantly, attract more customers to the railway.’ All this is vaguer than sunlight on a foggy day, and speaks only to ideological intent, rather than practical politics. It all aims to reinforce the picture painted by the Tories since the days of Mrs Thatcher: the public sector is unable to think commercially and is devoid of imagination and enterprise, and therefore only private companies can deliver efficiency and expansion. It is nonsense, debunked by many academics and debunked comprehensively by recent the story of rail privatisation.
Moreover, as Mick Whelan of ASLEF has pointed out, ‘this [emphasis on the private sector] is what got us into this mess in the first place’. It was the lack of coordination between the various players in the timetable fiasco of May 2018 which triggered the whole review process that was the basis of Harper’s speech.
Amusingly, Harper was rather discomfited by reaction to the speech because the BR sandwich subsequently disappeared from the record. After he had delivered the address, I went up to him and gave him a copy of my book, saying that he might find the last three chapters on how BR had created a good structure interesting (or words to that effect!). I then said ‘I was rather disappointed you mentioned BR sandwiches because it is such a cliché’. He replied ‘we discussed whether to include it and decided to go ahead’. But clearly not for future historians to consider. When the next day, the Department sent out what it called ‘transcript of the speech exactly as it was delivered’, there was no mention of BR’s sandwiches. Apparently political content is sometimes removed from speeches by government departments, which suggests that rather oddly the quality of BR sandwiches is now a political issue. I rather suspect that the inanity of the remark led to a late change of heart.
Mark Lockwood hits back
I got into trouble with Great Western boss Mark Hopwood, one of the best of the current train operators who has done well to keep GWR out of the headlines in these troubled times by maintaining a good service. In episode 5 of my new podcast, Calling All Stations, I mentioned the recent announcement of Levelling Up fund money for various rail schemes. I quoted Chris Stokes, the executive director of the Strategic Rail Authority and a highly experienced rail manager who, in a post on the Cogitamus website, argued that the £50m for the Mid-Cornwall metro, which will link the four biggest population centres in the area, was not money well spent.
Stokes, who praised other initiatives in the fund such as the Cardiff ‘Crossrail’, suggested that the improvement to Cornwall services was poor value for money. He argued that while in theory the project made sense, once ‘you look at a map, this is quite simply mad. By car, Newquay to Truro takes 25 minutes for a distance of 12.5 miles; there are also two regular bus routes, the faster of which takes 53 minutes. By contrast, the rail mileage is just under 40 miles, heading eastwards to Par.’ While he favoured a modest upgrade of the Cornish system, he argued that the £50m spend could not be justified.
I reported this in the podcast and Hopwood, normally a very equable fellow, responded angrily in an instant email to me. He pointed out that this was devolution in action, as Cornwall County Councl had long sought these improvements to its rail network. Moreover, it would do much to boost the University of Falmouth with its 5,000 students and local bus services are unable to cope with huge numbers of university and school students, three or four hundred of whom sometimes crowd onto the London trains which go through to Newquay.
I will debate this issue further with Hopwood who, as one of the few senior rail managers happy to engage with the media, has accepted an invite onto a forthcoming episode of the show and, of course, I will write about this debate here too. Watch this space. Meanwhile the latest edition of the podcast features a certain Nigel Harris on the rail reforms.