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.