Friday, 18 May 2007

Foolish consistency

If Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union, were to be granted one ‘political’ wish he would probably opt to see the railways renationalised. Ever since the rail system was ‘privatised’ Mr Crow has been of the opinion that private companies have no right to be involved in the running of the rail network. It is easy to admire someone who sticks to their beliefs but, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once so sagely noted, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And Mr Crow’s consistency on this issue is extremely foolish indeed.

Some of the points Mr Crow makes in relation to the state of the rail network are actually valid. For example, he identifies that the franchising system is a mess. Indeed it is: as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, the franchising system is at the root of many problems. However, Mr Crow’s assertion that re-nationalisation is required because of these problems is logically flawed. First and foremost, the government is in charge of the franchising system and it is fully responsible for the state of that process. To suggest that control of the railways should be handed back to the very people who are incapable of designing and running a sensible franchising process is a highly specious argument. What is actually required is a better franchising system based around principles that will enable the railways to deliver for passengers in the way that most other private companies deliver on the needs of their consumers.

Mr Crow also bemoans the fact that private train operators like First Great Western make a profit. This is an old argument which is based on nothing more than sloppy thinking and narrow-minded bias. Of course, what Mr Crow and his ilk rarely mention is the fact that the government takes far more money from franchises like Greater Western than the private companies take in profit. But even if this were not the case, Mr Crow is guilty of a double standard: it is perfectly alright for him to campaign for his own members to receive higher salaries; but it is wrong for train companies to work hard to make more profit. Where exactly does Mr Crow think salary increases come from? They can only come from companies making a profit – a company making a loss is hardly in a position to increase the salaries of its staff.

In a recent press release, Mr Crow casually commented: “when passengers are expected to endure overcrowding, service cuts and inflation-busting fares hikes and rail staff are left to pick up the pieces, First Group’s profits are simply obscene.” What he fails to mention is that overcrowding, service cuts and fare rises have very little to do with First Group’s (or First Great Western’s) profits. They are all functions of government interference in the network: the very same government that Mr Crow wants to control our trains.

The simple truth is that the call for re-nationalisation is not a call for a better railway. It is an ideological position that both ignores the real cause of the problems on today’s railways and all of the very real benefits that private involvement, in whatever its form, has brought over the past ten years.


Anonymous said...

renationalisation might not be the route to the best possible railway but it would be better than what we have now. The current system costs the taxpayer 3 times as much as BR did and whatever you think of BR noone can argue that the current system is three times better (true there are more trains and more passengers but not three times as many)

Anonymous said...


I almost totally agree with the original point.

The deplorable state of the the First Great Western franchise is the joint responsibility of the government and FGW.

To resolve these problems needs

- more government direction
- less government interference in detail
- significantly lower franchise charges by government
- more investment by FGW
- better franchise management by FGW.

FGW have the oldest and least reliable rolling stock in the country. Why can't they, or the government, replace the local and intercity fleets?

The problems over the 2006 December timetable in Bristol, Wiltshire shows that the management of FGW is lacking.

The best solution is a zero cost franchise, with commitments on train replacement, route development, etc

CJ Harrison said...

In regards to the first comment:

Yes, I agree the system is very expensive. However, those costs are not coming from the TOCs which have, over time, reduced the support they receive from the government and, in the case of FGW (and several other TOCs), now actually pay a very hefty premium to the government. In other words, TOCs are much more financially efficient.

Restructuring the system will reduce costs. Renationalising it may reduce some costs but, ultimately, for reasons I have explained elsewhere on the blog it will hamstring the system financially. And, long term, that leads to underinvestment which weakens the whole network. Indeed, some of the infrastructure costs we face today are a direct result of the underinvestment in the days of British Rail. We’re paying the price today for the nationalisation of the past.

In regards to the second comment:

Hi, I do agree with many of the points you make. I have never claimed that First Great Western is free of responsibility for some of the problems early on in the franchise. And to be fair, neither have they. The DfT does need to take its share of the blame too: and to date, it has failed to do so.

Investment, as you identify, is key. And investment from private companies like FGW will only come if the cost of franchises is cheaper and the length of them longer. The DfT calls the shots on both of these things and is the only agent of change in regard to these factors.

A good solution would be for the Class 180s to be kept and for the DfT to bear the cost of this. Such a move would increase capacity and would also allow rolling stock to be cascaded down through the FGW network thereby creating a better local fleet. I do not necessarily agree that the Intercity fleet needs replacing at the moment. There is an extensive investment programme in the HST trains with new engines being fitted and carriages being totally refurbished. This will extend the life of the HST for the remainder of the franchise and will also improve the efficiency, reliability and comfort of what I think is a simply suburb train.