28 June 2018

Brexit & Rail Re-Nationalisation Synergies

Frustrations surrounding the manner in which every day life is governed by a supposed unaccountable elite in Brussels and a similar impotence over operation and accountability of Britain’s much loved and cherished national rail network have, in the opinion of the LEYTR STIG, become so heightened that the outcomes have manifested themselves in the same way.

“How many European Commissioners do you think there are?” I was once asked. Foolishly, or perhaps not, I replied tentatively in the singular. “Wrong!” came the reply, “There are five and I bet you can’t name them!” For fear of a second humiliation I chose at this point to bow out with relative dignity and admitted defeat.

“Guess how much Network Rail want to charge to re-open a seven-mile section of railway between March and Wisbech,” I was asked recently. “Around £100 million!” came the reply before I could dispatch my response, so incensed was the questioner. “Can you imagine? I’ve said I’ll arrange it all myself for £50 million – a bargain if you ask me!”

For true believers in the European Project, or even those who are more comfortable with the UK becoming a more integral partner in Europe as a whole, it matters not one jot about how many EU Commissioners there are – or their names. They are content knowing that ‘we are where we are and I’m broadly happy with that.’

There can be few who would argue that the European Union and its Commission aren’t a little top heavy; full of bureaucrats who thrive on life’s minutiae, who seem self-obsessed with loop holes and creating butter mountains and wine lakes for the sake of their unwavering quest to follow rules.

For those who recall BBC’s 1990s sitcom Brittas Empire, well-meaning but woefully inept leisure centre manager Gordon Brittas (played by Chris Barrie) was encouraged to look for promotion as he was utterly useless managing people. “You find you’ve got yourself a bit of a chocolate fireguard,” Brittas mused in one episode to his much more competent deputy. “You can’t sack people nowadays because they can’t do their job. You have to encourage them to look for promotion.”

While Brittas was describing his other deputy – wart-laden hypochondriac Colin Wetherby – viewers, along with his other deputy Laura, with whom he was conversing – could spot the deliberately unintended comparison between poor Colin and himself. Brittas eventually applied for and was offered the position of European Commissioner for Sport. “Europe is made for people like you, Mr Brittas,” Laura wryly reassured him in the last episode when he was having last-minute jitters about whether to go or not.

Indeed the EU would very much suit people with Brittas’ particular skillset and the Brittas Empire writers Richard Fegan and Andrew Norriss held this view of the EU as long ago as 1993.

Brittas had a dream. A dream that one day all the peoples of the world would come together and that he, initially as a lowly leisure centre manager, would help mould the physical souls of the population. The EU has a dream too…

I feel I need to show my hand at this point. I was a massive fan of Brittas Empire and I also share the view with the majority of those who voted in the EU Referendum during 2016 that the UK should leave the European Union. In writing this, I’m not attempting to change or even challenge entrenched views; nor am I going to suggest alternative ways of doing things. 

I have spotted striking similarities between otherwise sensible, high-earning commuters who are well educated in how Capitalism works, demanding that the rail network be re-nationalised and large swathes of the population flicking the metaphorical V-sign at the Establishment over our continued membership of the EU and the potential for financial unknown should we ever leave.

Britain’s railway commuters pay a princely sum to travel to work and back by train, five days a week. The calculation for the cost of a Season Ticket varies slightly depending on distance travelled and the premium Anytime fare, but as a very general rule of thumb a weekly Season Ticket holder pays two-to-three times the Anytime return between A and B but can use their ticket for unlimited travel between A and B for seven consecutive days.

A weekly Season Ticket between Peterborough and London King’s Cross for ‘Any Permitted’ route (valid all operators between the two locations) costs £193.80 at the time of writing. An Anytime Short return (one journey in each direction though a period of one month is afforded for the return journey) costs £110.80. Therefore the weekly Season Ticket holder pays slightly less than two Anytime Returns.

Various emotionally-charged editorials and politically-motivated articles in railway magazines, penned by writers so passionate about the railway that I believe they genuinely lose some objectivity, have suggested that the railway should kindly remind its Season Ticket holders just what a great deal they’re getting. In the case of the many thousands who make the daily return trip from Peterborough to London King’s Cross, that for their £193.80 they’re not even paying for two Anytime Short Returns and so should tacitly be grateful of the astonishing value they’re getting.

Though this view could be seen as plain condescending, I feel the view is made through gentle ignorance of the ‘warts and all’ view commuters see of the railway. I’d counter that these hard-pressed long-distance travellers have a considerably better insight into the workings of the rail industry than we give them credit for.

They know the ‘dodge’ about how performance is measured (a train is only classified as running late if it gets to its ultimate destination over five or ten minutes late depending on whether it is a local/long-distance service, regardless of its punctuality at all other stations) and they’ve sussed that complaining to their train operating company (TOC) about how few coaches there are falls on deaf ears because the Department for Transport decides any train cascade.

“Nowhere in the Conditions of Carriage does it say that their ticket guarantees them a seat,” I’ve read in a railway magazine recently. The author of that particular incredulous sentence is correct. It doesn’t. But the perception is that those shelling out £193.80 per week should be able to sit down for their 90 minutes on a train every day.

Yet these switched-on commuters – who know the iron grip with which the DfT holds the industry – in the main reflect most polling results that show the country as a whole would prefer their railways fully nationalised.

“Yes, but Network Rail is nationalised and they’re responsible for tracks and signals and the upkeep of many stations. The Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern mega-franchise is a management contract let by the DfT, so in essence nationalised, and look at the mess there. And the specification for every rail franchise in the country is written by the DfT, so just how would re-nationalising the railways improve things?” is a much-vaunted response to anyone wanting to see their local train service taken back in-house.

This sort of nonsense not only paints the current set-up of Britain’s railways in the ridiculous light that many see it, but is disingenuous with the truth.

Re-nationalisation would mean the operation of all elements of the railway under the same organisation, left alone to manage with railway managers who are competent in just that, rather than the micro-management by office-based civil servants. This could result in the replication of a system used by British Railways or an arms length operation, over which the government itself has very little say. Proper re-nationalisaion would unify the operation of Britain's railways, ensuring all services operate with as few voices as possible in a much more coherent, competent manner.

Here the first big similarity between railway re-nationalisation and leaving the EU come to mind.

Of the many millions of voters who want the railways taken back in-house, a large majority would surely realise that were this to occur, Britain’s national railway network would always play second fiddle to the requirements of the NHS and the country’s schools, prisons and social care.

At the same time, despite the apocalyptical warnings by the Conservative government of what would happen if the UK electorate voted the leave the EU, the majority of voters chose to ignore what they were being told – including a very specific figure of just over £4,000 per household by the then-Chancellor – and dared to defy their government.

As I see it, the public at large are now so fed up with the service they receive from their train operator that they cannot physically envisage a scenario where this can get worse. Trains are late, overcrowded, often cancelled through the ineptitude of either the private operator or the DfT’s mandarins introducing unattainable schedules and expensive, unfathomable fares.

In exactly the same manner, over 17 million UK voters had become so bereft of their views not being heard; of their government’s inability to stand-up to the Gordon Brittases in Brussels; of not being able to get their children into their local school due to uncontrolled migrant labour in their town, that they collectively said, “Sod you!” to their government, the majority of big businesses, to celebrity naysayers and the five EU Commissioners and – rightly or wrongly – voted to leave.

MoneySavingExpert website founder Martin Lewis put it best while on the panel of a recent BBC Question Time when he said David Cameron had offered us a black and white question to which the answer was multi-layered and multi-faceted. The same applies to the re-nationalisation of Britain’s railways.

There are so many ways in which this could be achieved. The Labour Party, who is the most likely party to realise rail re-nationalisation, has cottoned onto the cost of relieving these private and foreign state operators of our railway franchises and so has chosen to adopt the Christian Wolmar view, which the transport writer suggested over a decade ago. This would simply see each franchise not re-let when it expires. The problem with this is that it will take nearly two decades for all franchises to be then taken back in-house.

And to the best of my knowledge, the Labour Party has yet to offer detailed workings of how any re-nationalised railway would be run. If it’s similar to how the DfT is micro-managing things with Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, then god help us. If it is anything like how the DfT is ordering Network Rail to complete certain electrification schemes and to introduce higher-frequency timetables despite protestations from the nationalised infraco at how rushed this is having to be and therefore the knock-on effect to train operators being lack of preparedness for robust timetables – precisely what we are seeing across the North West with Northern of late, then ditto here, too.

It is clear to me that the raw impotence being felt by rail commuters and over 17 million UK voters is having the same effect. They simply do not care what the future holds. Rightly or wrongly they cannot envisage a scenario where they could be any worse off than they are now.

Quite who is at fault is considerably more complex than observing and writing about two otherwise disparate groups of people.

One thing is for sure. The government needs to listen to the electorate. This is the easy part. Its divisions – along with those in the Opposition Party – and a lack of an overall majority in the House of Commons is ultimately what is tying its hands from either satisfying the majority or screwing it over. A typical ‘third way’ fudge is almost certainly the worst of all worlds.

The LEYTR Stig has been an historic contributor to the LEYTR Blog over the years and, as with all articles, the viewpoint expressed reflect's that of the author.


Anonymous said...

What on earth is an "Anytime Short Return"? Is it what the rest of the country calls an "Anytime Return" or perhaps the short-distance variant called an "Anytime Day Return"?

I assume that whatever you thought it was, it's just as much a flight of fantasy as the rest of your post, which seems to bear little resemblance to the world I live in but rather a lot more resemblance to DailyMailWorld. Despite your protestations to the contrary, your rabid Brexitism shines through, along your with your determination to bend every truth to fit your fantasy.

You've just lost yourself another member. Congratulations.

LEYTR said...

Hello there.

The 'LEYTR Stig' has been an historic contributor to the LEYTR Blog, which if you subscribed to the LEYTR magazines you'd know is a place for anyone to offer unsolicited pieces for publication. Due to the position within the transport network in London that the 'LEYTR Stig' holds, he has always posted anonymously.

The 'LEYTR Stig' nailed his colours to the mast in the 10th paragraph: "I feel I need to show my hand at this point. I... share the view with the majority of those who voted in the EU Referendum during 2016 that the UK should leave the European Union" so he made known that he was likely to feature somewhere on your scale "rabid Brexitism".

The Anytime Short Return is a relatively new ticket that plugs the gap between the Anytime Return and the Anytime Day Return, for those who travel a prescribed medium distance. The fare the 'LEYTR Stig' quoted in his above piece is here: http://www.brfares.com/#faredetail?orig=PBO&dest=KGX&grpd=1072&tkt=SHR

Anonymous said...

One of the most fascinating aspects your anonymous contributor pointed out that I'd not noticed before, is the high number of capitalism-savy London-based commuters who are now calling for re-nationalisation. Thought provoking.