Reply To: Renationalising the UK rail network – a good idea?

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I well recall that bastion of hard-left thinking and writing (otherwise known as the Financial Times) doing a series of articles back in the mid-1990s, detailing just how Major’s privatisation of the railways had taken place and the consequences for the rail industry, the rail supply industry, the passengers and the vast new feeding frenzy around the Office of Rail Regulation etc.

I recall the point being made that the terms on offer to the City of London were so generous, it was a latter day version of Nye Bevan’s “stuffing money down their throats” to make doctors sign up to the NHS back in the late 1940s, except that this time it was taxpayers cash for the finance industry. The terms on offer to those setting up the train leasing companies (the so-called ROSCOs) were so generous that there was a queue down the block and back again of institutions seeking to get their hands on these licences to mint money.

Having corresponded with a Tory junior minister at the Dept of Transport, he sternly rebuked me for my suggestion that the privatisation was a piece of ideologically driven malice. He then lectured me that privatisation would (a) save the taxpayer a fortune as the central government subsidy was progressively removed and (b) it would unleash a wave of entrepreneurial flair across the railways that had, hitherto, been smothered by state ownership.

Sadly, I have mislaid the letter with the Department of Transport letter head because I would have loved to post it online for all to read the delusional ravings of an ideologically motivated political hooligan. The essential truth is that rather than reduce the level of state spending on the railways, this increased to levels never experienced during public ownership. The Tories managed, within a few years, to destroy almost all of the UK’s railway design and manufacturing capacity owing to the hiatus in orders that followed privatisation: no orders, no cash, no company. The model of privatisation was so complicated that no-one anywhere in the world has come within a million miles of copying it. The only real growth area around the railways in the mid-1990s was not in improving the network or delivering better services, it was around arguing the toss over who was responsible for delays and who would pay the fines to the rail regulator. A lawyer’s charter and another licence to mint money.

And we haven’t even looked, yet, at just what a catastrophe Railtrack was. Their principal motivation was not in running the railways, it was in acting as a property developer. So that was where they concentrated their efforts with the maintenance of the permanent way subbed out to contractors whose principal concern was in what cash they could extract out the process. The (almost) inevitable result was that passengers paid, literally, with their lives with a series of rail crashes directly related to poor maintenance procedures and/or the failure to spot poor signalling practices.

Yes, our railways are now much better than prior to privatisation but the simple, unarguable truth, is that this has come as a result of levels of taxpayer subsidy (now being racheted down – to the immense chagrin of Tory voters in the ‘burbs and the shires) that the British Railways Board could only have dreamed of. For all the talk of efficiency and entrepreneurialism post-privatisation, the most recent national study showed a cost structure that has gone from being one of the leanest (under public ownership) to being one of the most costly and inefficient in Europe after two decades of private monopoly ownership. What an achievement.

Personally, I would have loved to have seen the subsequent Bliar LabLiar administration surcharge each and every Tory MP who voted through this ideological vandalism for the losses to the taxpayer from the theft and misappropriation of taxpayer-owned assets. The resulting bankrupting of large parts and many individuals within the Tory party would have taught these “beggars on horseback” (to use a term much loved by my late Tory county councillor father) a lesson that they would never have forgotten. Very possibly, we would now have a Tory party that understood humility and decency rather than overweening arrogance, hubris and imperial overreach.

If anyone chooses to pick an argument with me over my comments, I would strongly suggest that you make a better fist of explaining yourself than the drivel penned by that Tory boy in the mid-90s. And BTW, I would be entirely delighted to see Jezza fall flat on his face – rail re-nationalisation or no rail re-nationalisation.

Don’t believe me, then try:

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