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The Great Train Robbers

November 24, 2008

The iniquity of the UK train operators’ stranglehold on a captive traveller since the botched 1993 privatisation, when a patchwork of mini-monopolies replaced the monolithic British Rail is well-documented. The network itself – tracks, stations, signals, overhead electric cables and all the costly stuff needed to run a railway – collapsed accordingly and was taken back into state ownership by none other than Alistair Darling, then pretending to be Transport Secretary. The engines, carriages, freight cars and profitable things that people pay money to sit in or send stuff round on, remained in the hands of many of the same fat controllers who had previously mismanaged the nationalised version. The novel twist was that they were paid lottery sums to take on this ‘burden’, and given generous ’subsidies’ with no penalties for failure other than a ticking-off every now and then from an independent Ombudsman who used to work for Virgin Trains, one of the main operators, but not the worst. (Suggestions, please . . .)

The trains are largely leased- many from a division of Royal Bank of Scotland – recently part-privatised by Alistair Darling, now pretending to be Chancellor – so we’re paying for somebody to borrow from ourselves to charge us too much money. On November 21 2008, the fat controllers yet again announced planned fare rises of 6-8% from January 2009, undermining government plans to keep the country working, its citizens from despair and reduce road traffic congestion. It is an ecological imperative to move 80% of people and freight off the roads and out of the air onto rail, but unless train surfing catches on, this will be unlikely.

UK passenger rail numbers have more than doubled over the last decade, despite charging some of the highest fares per mile in Europe, running a Ruritanian cross-country service and playing cruel tricks on passengers’ weekends. Privatisation was intended to iron out inefficiencies, make the system at least self-sufficient over time and keep fare increases in line with cost of living rises. The taxpayer is subsidising the ‘investment’ in service improvements while paying an uneconomic price – uncompetitive with road and air transport in almost all cases. There is no asset payback for the subsidy and precious little service guarantee. The dysfunctional greed of the operators is an outcome of rewarding failure. These carpetbaggers need to be forced to travel on their own trains, on a Sunday evening.

You may deduce that I travelled by rail this weekend. I took a very adequate train from the magnificent new St. Pancras International terminal to a kennel with a W.H Smith kiosk in Leicester. I was duped into thinking the journey would cost £43.00 return, mistakenly took the return train 30 minutes earlier than I should have and was obliged by what looked like an unshaven Didicoy with face jewelery and tattoos in a Star Trek costume to pay an extra £63.00 for a journey of 93 miles. This graduate of the RyanAir school of customer service refused to comment except for the classic refrain: ‘it’s all in the small print.’ I wonder why I missed it. Surely not by design?

Russian oligarchs used violence and coercion to rob the workers of stakes in privatised state assets in the 1990s. Their UK counterparts have rooked the customer for too long. UK citizens are tired of the ‘jam tomorrow’ argument that once the investment phase is complete, prices and subsidies will fall. Nix these oafs now. We have nothing to lose. Kafkaesque announcements such as: “I repeat: First Class passengers can expect completely different tea and coffee,” and “there will be no sausages for twenty minutes” will continue to disconcert. They should add: “Service will be random. Inclement weather will paralyse the network. The buffet car will be a mirage. We’ve got your cash. Resistance is futile.”

The next Tory government should atone for their sins and give us back our rail monopoly. Then at least we are robbing Peter to pay Paul, instead of Richard.