We need to find better ways to get our railways back on track

CROYDON COMMENTARY: High fares and poor service are the bane of every local commuters’ daily grind. DAVID CALLAM suggests it is time for change

Trains play a crucial role in the lives of many people in Croydon.

Southern trainI haven’t been a commuter for donkeys’ years, but I still remember the uncertain wait, morning and evening, on crowded platforms for a service that might or might not arrive, or might be running seriously late for all manner of spurious reasons.

Trades unions insist that the service has deteriorated since John Major privatised the railways in 1993.

But what privatisation?

The tracks and the land on which they stand still belong to the public, quite rightly; but so do the trains. The decisions about which trains we buy for which lines are taken by civil servants, who do the deals with train-builders. Operating companies are told which trains they will run and who they will employ at the time franchises are let. When the franchise expires or is terminated, the trains and the staff are immediately passed on to the next operator.

The number and nature of trains required to run the Thameslink service from Bedford to Brighton via East Croydon have long since been decided. Thameslink 2000 was a Millennium project that may finally be completed by 2020. The first trains are already being tested in Germany, but the operating franchise for the service has yet to be advertised, let alone let.

Likewise new trains for the East Coast Main Line and soon-to-be electrified lines to Wales and the West Country have been ordered long before we know who will run them.

We have a government-controlled railway service that we subsidised with £3.2 billion of public money in the financial year 2012-2013, and yet we pay some of the highest fares in Europe.

The government would have you believe high fares result from all the investment we are making in the railways: new lines, new signalling, new stations and new rolling stock. But our continental cousins are doing as much investment, if not more, as we are.

Rail economists tell us our track maintenance charges are some of the highest in the world. Network Rail, which manages the tracks and signalling, is a public-sector company.

In Croydon, the stations are grossly inadequate for modern needs. East and West Croydon, the two busiest stations, both need rebuilding with additional platforms.

My nearest station, South Croydon, is a nightmare for anyone with mobility problems or even for a parent with a baby buggy; its platforms are only accessible from a pokey subway that can truly be called Dickensian.

Labour’s Ed Miliband wants to make the railway a General Election issue. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday morning that there would be something in the forthcoming manifesto, but he wouldn’t say precisely what.

There are many in Miliband’s party for whom a publicly run railway is an act of faith; likewise, there are those on the other side politically who think the answer is to privatise every aspect of the railway.

The matter must be decided economically, not politically, which is why we need to ask some basic questions, including:

  • How much would it really cost to run an efficient, modern railway?
  • Is it more cost-effective to run it in the public sector or to let a series of long-term management franchises?
  • What can we learn from railway systems abroad?
  • How much of the cost should we meet from taxation?
  • How should we apportion fares between peak and off-peak services?

Once we have the answers we can make a properly informed decision.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in 2015 General Election, Commuting, David Callam, East Croydon, Transport, West Croydon and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to We need to find better ways to get our railways back on track

  1. prometheus47 says:

    My take on rail privatisation economics.
    You give two apples to your government. They spend one apple running the service, and invest one apple in the network.
    You give two apples to a private company. They spend one apple running the service, take one apple as profit and write you a polite letter telling you that they’ll need a third apple next time else they won’t be able to continue to provide the same level of service.

  2. Privatisation can bring economies and expertise not available in the public sector. However, and as found with the East Coast Mainline, if the private companies don’t make a profit (which is in effect extra cost) they can and will walk away. There is no point in them providing a service unless they make money. The problem is that the public sector often has a legal obligation to provide a service and then have to step in. Nothing new in what I’ve written and it is analogous to DIY versus tradespeople.

  3. David. A very good piece but a few inaccuracies:

    – Network Rail is only a public sector company from September when, by EU force, it is renationalised due to the size of government debt.
    – Rolling stock is not all government decisions, however, the big reshuffle of stock and electrification is indeed government policy. The new thameslink stock was due last year I believe but due to the Government delaying it they have been delayed significantly. A lot of rolling stock decisions are taken by operators e.g. Chiltern’s new services.
    – Tendering for the combined Thameslink and Southern franchise ends in the Autumn with new operator due next year I believe from last look at the documents here.

    Railways desperately need to be taken fully back under Government control and unified back towards five main areas: regional, cross country, London and SE, Scottish regional, Welsh regional. On top of this open access and freight services can intertwine and indeed thrive within the private sector.

    One of the reasons for cost over here is due to our historic loading gauge. Now the continent’s gauge is far larger than here (main exception being the Great Western lines). Thus off the shelf trains in the continent are not suitable for the British market driving up cost.

  4. Nick Davies says:

    The way rolling stock is provided is rather more bizarre than most people realise.

    There are three ROSCOs (rolling stock companies) that actually buy the trains from the manufacturers (some of them the result of privatisation of British Rail Engineering Ltd) and then rent them out to the TOCs (train operating companies), creaming off a nice profit in the process.

    It isn’t just Southern’s owners who get a slice of your fare when you buy your ticket at East Croydon; there are plenty more snouts in the trough. Before Railtrack disgraced itself at Hatfield and had to be renationalised, its shareholders were helping themselves to a slice too, and if many Tories got their way Network Rail would be privatised again tomorrow.

  5. To make matters worse, a lot of those ROSCOs are/are actually owned by banks and hedge funds…

    I think the way that London Overground is run works quite well – private companies run the day to day logistics of the trains etc, under the London Overground brand which is of course TfL. The service level under this format has improved greatly and the private operating company do not have the control or ability within the contract to be able to mess it up or over-charge like the others do. It is a bit closer to the typical franchise you see on our high streets with the likes of McDonalds or Subway etc.

  6. Richard Pout says:

    Since the Southern Railway company which operates most of the sevices around Croydon gets a hefty subsidy, and then declares a profit for its owning group GoAhead, there is no point in this this privatistion. They can offer little expertise that is not already in the public sector. So what is the point in a having the private sector operator? None at all! So time to put this franchise back in the Public Sector.

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