If only Aditya Chakrabortty actually knew anything about the railways

Britain’s privatised railways are rife with facades and fakery. Interviewed by Andrew Marr at the weekend, Theresa May claimed that private ownership of our train services had brought a flood of extra cash. Indeed it has – not from the businesses, but from us, the public. We’ve paid for all the real investment in the railways – whether in Pendolinos or on the track – which is how we’ve ended up with an extra £30bn in national debt.

Err, yes, that’s because the rail lines, where the investment takes place, are nationalised. This is what the whole system would be like if it were all nationalised again.

Ministers pretend that the woeful Southern Railway is a private train service. Yet Southern is controlled by the state, which hands it to a company to run. Southern’s ultimate managers are little more than government officials, paid billions by the state to leave stricken commuters miles from home.

Indeed, so, the state employing managers to run stuff ain’t so great then? Buh bye to nationalisation then.

Consider: in the run-up to Christmas, the transport secretary issues a new rail strategy. For the most part neither new nor strategic, the 44-page document does have buried deep inside mention of an “East Coast partnership”. That, Grayling insists, is not a bailout. It turns out to be a bailout. Virgin Trains East Coast (Vtec) offered the government £3.3bn to run the services between London and Leeds, Edinburgh and Aberdeen from 2015 till 2023. Even at the time, that was silly money.

When Virgin’s baloney business forecasts turned out to be just that and the company began losing money, its managers and owners set about lobbying. It appears to have worked: Grayling is letting Vtec out of the contract in 2020, three years early. As for the £3.3bn Vtec promised taxpayers, we’ll be lucky to get half that. According to executives’ latest modelling, by 2020 they plan to have paid a total of £1.7bn. That leaves £1.6bn missing.

Because the nationalised part of the railway system, the tracks, couldn’t or at least didn’t update the tracks upon which that higher offer was based.

23 comments on “If only Aditya Chakrabortty actually knew anything about the railways

  1. “Serious question: are Indian railways better?”

    Serious answer – at least in terms of carrying capacity several times better than ours when you add the roofs and runningboards etc.

  2. The railways were having a major train crash with significant death tolls every 2 and 1/2 years back in the 90s.

    Not sure how going back to the system that caused / allowed that is in anyway a good idea.

  3. @itellyounothing – 19-th century style manual signalling will do that… It’s computerised now, so the risks are far lower.

  4. @abacab Can you list the accidents in the 90’s caused by 19th century manual signalling? I can only think of accidents caused by 20th century computerised (programme based) signalling, and plenty involving drivers passing signal at danger.

  5. @Abacab, Fair point, but under-investment in maintenance and systemic improvements under a nationalised system is what caused 19th Century signalling to still be in use into the early 00s and in some places, doubtless still is.

    I don’t want safety critical equipment frozen in the early 21st century when better kit becomes available either.

    Those who won’t learn from past mistakes are condemned to repeat them. At least until we all have flying cars…

  6. On my occasional trips into London (Waterloo) I only see one type of rolling stock that predates privatisation, and that was bought the year before. Everything else on the tracks has been funded by the private sector.

  7. On balance I’m happy for the railway itself to be state owned as it is the equivalent of the road network. Who owns and runs the services that run on the transport network is entirely up to whoever wants to own and run a transport service. Of course, that gives the same problems of investing in the tarmac transport network as investing in the steel rail network.

  8. “Of course, that gives the same problems of investing in the tarmac transport network as investing in the steel rail network.”

    And as we all know, the road network is in tip top shape……….the history of any nationalised asset is one of lack of investment and basic maintenance. Why anyone thinks its ever going to be any different is beyond me.

  9. I’m confused.

    So the Graun tells us nationisation is essential and a bad idea?

    Even their opinions are confused, never mind the news…

  10. Jim, the road network is indeed in fine shape. Except for the potholes, the maintenance and the lack of capacity that has not kept pace with increase in vehicles.

    The government may prefer people not all buy 4 x 4 vehicles for use around towns and cities, however the state maintained road network does push people towards vehicles capable of coping with the roads.

    A pothole in the next village to us was on a busy route, the workmen filling it and tamping the stuff down were literally doing so in gaps in the traffic – 5 to 10 seconds work at a time followed by several minutes of traffic followed by more work and so on.

  11. So the Graun tells us nationisation is essential and a bad idea?

    That The Guardian’s senior economics commentator has a degree in history – and not in anything related to economics, public policy or business – seems to make perfect sense.

  12. Manual signalling had absolutely nothing to do with rail accidents in the 90s. It is a perfectly safe method of working and the reason it survived so long ( and still survives in places ) is the cost to benefit ratio of replacement. All the bad accidents of that decade happened at places with modern systems although none involved failure or misuse of those systems.

    Neither was it just a failure on the part of BR to invest that resulted in manual signalling persisting. The first power and colour light installations date from the 1900s and 1920s respectively but the private companies faced exactly the same cost difficulties with replacement. Even the always private and technically driven US railroads have a few surviving mechanical signalboxes.

  13. Some interesting (to trainspotters) facts from the latest ORR safety report:

    Last year was the first time in a decade there were passenger fatalities in a rail accident. It was actually the Croydon tram.

    One worker died on the railway.

    Public fatalities (non-suicide, non-passenger, non-workforce) on the rails was 36. Note that the biggest number were neither passengers or workforce, by *far*. From memory, I think thing like level crossings, trespass on electric rails, etc. are actually the big killers. This statistic is down about 40% over the last 10yrs. Not sure what it was like in BR times.

    Overall over the last ten years, most injury and accident statistics are flat or slightly down. The number of passenger journeys has gone up 40%

  14. @Bloke on M4.
    At privatisation all the rolling stock was transferred to three leasing companies, Angel Trains, Porterbrook and Eversholt which were sold to the private sector
    The leasing companies leased the old rolling stock, but over time that was phased out and they bought and financed new rolling stock.
    Operating companies are granted franchises for considerably less than the life of the new trains, so while the lease of new trains may be a sometimes be a term of the grant of a franchise, the leasing companies have no guarantee that any later franchisees will take the trains on lease, so the leasing companies are assuming material residual value risks.
    The leasing companies have changed hands a few times but as far as I remember they are all still in the private sector.

  15. Oblong

    Good points all. In fact the accident rate for passengers has been on a slow downward curve since the 1920s and the 90s were a statistical blip, of which there have been a number over the years. User worked and ungated level crossings are the single worst cause of accidents which are nearly always due to misuse, until these are eradicated ( a long way off ) they will continue to be a curse. The decline in accidents is what you would expect from a system that is undergoing continuing evolution and can be traced back as far as the 1880s when block signaling and automatic continuous braking became the norm.

  16. Thanks.

    For some reason I managed to drop one of my facts: almost 90% of deaths on the railways are (suspected) suicides.

    Something like 270 a year.

    Which is itself way bigger than anything else.

    So roughly suicide is 10x trespass and level crossings which is 5x the killer of the worst rail disaster of the last decade.

  17. This morning the (?only) fully nationalised bit of the railways is closed down while they check the brakes of every train.
    In my naivety I imagined that they checked the brakes before startng the trains every morning but obviously I am just old-fashioned.
    Mr Chakrabortty’s nationalised railway would go back to one fatal crash a year because “safety” means employing more people, not doing the standard elementary safety checks.

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