I write this blog one-thumbed on my iPhone in a standing position on a packed train leaving Liverpool Street. It’s leaving 20 minutes late because the staff needed a break, because the train was an hour and a half coming in (thinks: National Distrust Eat Strangular, the so-called train operator just about to lose its franchise because it’s rubbish, might care less about self-promoting marketing and more about backup crews).
The reason the train was late coming in was because of the theft of railside cable somewhere in Essex. Such thievery is common yet Network Snail, the body supposed to manage the infrastructure, such as it is, seems powerless to stop it. Oh yes, the police. Where are the Boys in Blue when you need them?
The result is standing room only (dang it, I said that already) and one feels as Christian must have done as the train crawls with the zest of an arthritic cross-eyed newt to stop at Chelm, Crotchfester, Shitswipe, Minging Tree, Snotmarket and Piss, before, more in hope than expectation, arriving at the Celestial City. Eventually.
What will be worse than the delay and discomfort (and cost, I pay more than £6000 a year for this) will be the many obsequious apologies larded on by the staff, in elaborate English they can’t quite manage: a metaphor, I feel, for the state of the whole organisation. But talk is cheap, and empty vessels make the most noise.
More words have been written about the decline of Britain’s railways than there are toes in Wroxham. The debate generally centers, these days, on the relative merits of private or public ownership, but such argument is piddling compared with the decades of underinvestment and total failure of a leadership unwilling to face down vested interests as varied as the Unions on one side and the road lobby on the other. In my view the current system of franchising is wrong: but those who look back at the nationalised British Rail with nostalgia do so through rose-tinted spectacles.
Nobody doubts that the railway is needed. Demand is so high that the so-called rail operators, seeing trains full to capacity, have a so-called business model that relies on raising prices so high that people can no longer afford to use the service. (Ah, ‘service’- remember that?) I have written elsewhere no doubt, about the shortsightedness of CEOs in being slow to adopt principles of distributed, flexible working, alleviating stress on their staff, but then such CEOs don’t travel by train except occasionally in first class, where they get free wifi and meals that us proles have to pay for.
But I digress. And we’re through Chelm. I have a seat and the train is going more quicklierer.
I think the
sauce tzores source of the problem goes back to Lord Beeching, known as Beeching the Bastard, who closed much of Britain’s rail capacity in the 1960s. Before that, there was consumer choice, whereas now there is none. Railways penetrated every corner of the land, and, crucially, there was often a choice of routes between destinations, as there is now, between airlines, who offer attractive fares to tempt prospective passengers away from the competition.
In the air today, prices are keen, and customers are called passengers.
On the train today, prices are bloated, and passengers are called customers.
I think that there are now two choices, neither of which is anywhere near perfect.
One would be to renationalize the railway and run it as a loss-making public good rather than as a profit centre. (Like SNCF, the glory of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys across the channel, which always makes a thumping great loss.) The problem would be finding managers – and union bosses – sufficiently high minded not to exploit such a scheme for their own ends.
The second would be privatisation, but of a kind different from the present one, which lacks the competitive element. For a start, Network Rail – the infrastructure – would be handed back to the operators. The operators could then hire private security to patrol the track for vandals. This model would allow operators to open new routes, competing with established ones, in the same way that it’s now possible to have private toll roads, or a range of airline routes. Sure, in many ways this looks like turning back the clock, but there is wisdom in recognising that not all progress is good, and, sometimes, things were done better in the past. At least, I think so.
And – oh, another thing – let’s bring back steam locomotives. Easy to run, robust, less fragile than electric trains dependent on vulnerable overhead wiring, and certainly no slower than my journey today. Steam would be cost-effective for low-revenue branch lines in a way that electricity wouldn’t, I suspect. I bet that someone, somewhere, is working on a new generation of steam locomotive that could be as fast, clean and efficient as electric trains are meant to be.
Of course, none of this will ever happen. Today’s politicians and business leaders are of a lesser breed than their forebears, less inclined to take charge; more content with endless delegation and vitiating meetings that allow decisions to be put off for as long as possible, if not indefinitely; more hidebound by bureaucracy, eurocracy and red tape. No, there is no looking back: I regret to say that we live in a fallen world in which things can only ever get worse.