I am a regular user of the railways, though not – at the moment – a commuter. Rare is the week that I do not make at least one, roughly-matched pair of journeys. I do this rather than drive (or fly) largely (I fondly imagine) as a matter of personal preference. However, having recently read Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have come to realise that it is also a political act – by using the train (or even the bus), I rub shoulders (and sometimes more) with my fellow members of society and so interact with the full breadth of UK social class (all the way from standard to first) – an experience which is largely avoided by those who drive everywhere, (in)secure in their own private “bubble”. Emboldened by my unintended political engagement and the recent news, I thought I’d be more overtly political about the railways.
In recent weeks, the government has produced a new “initiative” (one of depressingly many) that what is holding the north back is the transit time by rail between its major cities. Now, I will admit that Trans-Pennine Express is a good description of the train’s route, but is rather optimistic about its pace (unless one is a geologist). Nevertheless, I am somewhat sceptical that knocking 10 minutes off the transit time between Manchester and Leeds will create a new tiger economy in the lee of the M62. However, the output from this government “tank” (which I presume is what remains once we has extracted any thought from a think tank) is that faster trains in the distant future is what is needed to revitalise the north.
I travel around the north by rail quite rarely, but I follow several people on Twitter who are regular users. Now, I will readily admit that this sample has not been selected with the sort of rigour expected of a regular listener to More-or-Less – but remains interesting anecdotally. I have yet to see any users of TPE complaining about the speed of service – but many complaints about the lack of seating and excess of unreliability. The same story applies to Northern Rail – which, from what I read, must have taken its mission statement from one (or more) of Dante’s nine circles of hell (or perhaps the franchise is being operated by agoraphobic sardines?). I would be willing to go out on a limb (statistically) and suggest that for the majority of northern rail users, some extra rolling stock and some decent maintenance tomorrow would be far more appreciated than standing for a slightly shorter period of time in a decade or two. It would also be much quicker and cheaper to deliver. One is left to ponder for whose benefit is the government intervening in the operation of the railway? It would seem not to be either the passenger or tax payer – so who?
This question was brought into sharper focus today with the news about East Coast. I have been a very regular user of the East Coast Main Line, and still use it in preference to flying to Edinburgh (which would be both cheaper and faster). East Coast – the current state-owned operators – seem have made a decent fist of running it. Not quite a return to the glory days of GNER, but a far better job than almost any other rail franchise. I have seen much Twitter traffic praising East Cost and looking with horror on its replacement – which is not something you saw with the end of the First Capital Connect franchise (to take but a single example). On the whole East Coast seems to be viewed somewhat favourably by its users – but this holds little sway with our political masters. Once again, the government makes clear by its actions (rather than its empty rhetoric) that the railway is clearly not there to serve its customers. It would seem to be there to deliver a hefty “bribe” to the Treasury (£3.3 billion – or 3.5 years of work from East Coast) and to enrich the shareholders of Virgin and Stagecoach. I found myself wondering how many passengers East Coast carries per year and how this compares to the number of UK-voting and tax-paying shareholders of Stagecoach and Virgin (combined). I suspect the balance would lie heavily in the East Coast passengers favour. I have limited experience of Virgin’s rail performance, though news from a while back suggests that it is at least better than First Group, but Stagecoach have little in the way of laurels to rest upon. Indeed, so toxic is Stagecoach’s name considered that despite owning 90% of the company which has “won” the franchise, it will be the Virgin “brand” that will appear on the trains. Leaving the appearance that all rail routes to Scotland are controlled by Virgin – so much for competition! (Well, in the private sector anyway – it still seems to be full-steam ahead in the public sector. Perhaps the NHS should start dropping sizeable “bungs” to the Treasury?). Or is this a punishment for the Scots for having the temerity to almost leave the union?
It is perhaps ironic that in many cases the UK government is keen to dispose of our “loss-making” railways to companies owned by foreign governments, who then make substantial profits from them. We seem to be keen to give our money away to the French, Dutch and Germans – swapping subsidising our own railways with subsidising those of our neighbours. This is very European minded of us, and quite at odds with most of the rhetoric produced by the government in recent weeks.
Political parties seem to be casting around randomly for policies that might appeal to voters in the run up to next year’s General Election. Might I suggest that with the exception of East Coast (and perhaps a couple of others), promising to replace the current rail franchise holders would be a major vote winner. It would also be one which avoids overly strong parallels with the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany – which would make for a nice change.
In the meantime, I shall be reviewing my travel arrangements to Scotland – a slow boat, perhaps?