I was interviewed by the new television news arm of the Financial Times a couple of weeks back, and realised – perhaps a little reluctantly – that I am considered an expert on the rail ‘debate’.
I put the word debate in inverted commas because I’m not sure either of the options in open political debate are really worth debating. One (nationalisation) has been tried for most of my life and – because it puts the rail system firmly in the hands of the Treasury – was not a notable success. The other (the status quo) so clearly isn’t delivering that the Department of Transport is everywhere pulling the strings, which means of course the Treasury again.
I am not advocating the current form of privatisation, which is dysfunctional in the case of Govia Thameslink that it is barely distinguishable from nationalisation. GTR get to keep just three per cent of ticket revenues – well, of course they have no interest in passengers.
Just how little interest they have in passengers was apparent to everyone trying to travel to, from or via Gatwick Airport the Sunday before last – a particularly lacklustre form of rail replacement bus service, vaguely going between Redhill and Three Bridges.
I find it hard that nobody, either at the Department or GTR was not aware they had laid on not nearly enough bus seats for the predictable number of passengers – less than half.
The resulting chaos was not just predictable, it was a vision of hell. Embarrassing too that so many of those caught up in it were foreign holidaymakers, bawled at in English by panicked officials.
At least with British Rail, they did most of their scheduled repairs at night. Trying to get back from Portsmouth last Sunday, my poor son was confronted by another hideous rail replacement bus, full of swearing passengers. It is as if GTR does not believe our leisure time is worth protecting.
This is not the case of course. GTR is a mere cipher for the Transport Secretary and, behind him, Andrew Allner, chair of GTR owners Go-Ahead, and the ever-present Treasury.
I have been mulling over why rail privatisation has become almost the inverse of what it was intended to be. I believe it is the fatal commitment to economies of scale, which is also hollowing out so many other privatised services. That has meant that there are now so few, giant operators capable of meeting the threshold requirements that it seems unlikely that Chris Grayling can any more cover up the problems by shuffling an ever-shrinking number of proverbial deckchairs.
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