The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Take The National Express

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 3, 2009 @ 01:34

The Fat Controller asked Thomas what it was like to be owned by a bank, and then leased to a private company, while run on rail maintained by a not-for-profit public company, who sub-contract the maintenance of the rail to private firms. Thomas's face remained resolutely fixed in his usual, happy, smile. Bless.

The Fat Controller asked Thomas what it was like to be owned by a bank, and then leased to a private company, while run on rail maintained by a not-for-profit public company, who sub-contract the maintenance of the rail to private firms. Thomas's face remained resolutely fixed in his usual, happy, smile. Bless.

It seems our government did the only decent thing it could do when it took the advice of The Divine Comedy and, quite literally, took the National Express.

Well, they’ve sort of taken the National Express. They’ve taken something off them. Or, at least, they’re going to. Not yet. Clear?

Of course not. The government though has taken a highly principled stand of sort-of nationalising a rail franchise because, at some point in the future, they’re not going to bother paying the bill that they promised they would. And pioneering Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, who recently spent five days travelling the country by train, thought the best response would be to hit them where it hurts.

I’m sure National Express will be very saddened to lose the financial burden the franchise was to them. Oh yes. What anguish they will suffer, no longer having to pay the government all the promised £1.4bn that they overbid, just like their predecessors in GNER, for the rights to run what should be the best, prestigious and most lucrative rail franchise in the country.

In case you haven’t guessed already – I have a keen interest in transport issues. My real concern about this whole agenda is something that actually highlighted even by one Peter Hitchens in tonight’s Question Time. Roads receive vast amounts of public money. It is seen as an essential investment in keeping this country ticking over. Meanwhile, rail is the Cinderella at the ball. It is not invested in. It receives subsidies, which are being steadily withdrawn as the years go by. And, on top of all that, it is widely understood that it is government policy to make the passenger pay more directly for usage of the network. That is, higher fares.

The logical equivalent in the road network would be not just road tolls, but the national road pricing schemes that has been indefinitely shelved because 2m people (or whatever) signed a petition on the subject. But somehow, the motorist is not treated in the same way.

Why should that be? Certainly in places like London, almost everyone is uses the rail network at some point. In the rest of the country, much less so. But it is still a significant proportion of the population… except for the fact that there are undoubtedly more car users.

So is it a case of numbers? An unusual case of government favouring the many and not the few? To a certain extent, yes.Let’s not forget that the road lobby is incredibly powerful. Organisations like the AA and the RAC have huge amounts of members. Rail users are disunited and disparate by comparison.

But the true nub of the issue is this: with a privatised railway, or any utility, the government can wash its hands of problems.  For the same reason why so much power is given to bureaucrats and quangos, why the government is determined to have foundation hospitals and trust schools, the less the government can be held to account, the better. It allows them to blame everyone but themselves.

But somehow, they just can’t escape from their road responsibilities. That’s probably why we’ll never get national road pricing – despite it arguably being the only answer to road congestion. Maybe I’ll return to that thorny issue another time.

At its heart though – for the same reason why roads should never be privatised, rail shouldn’t too. It is an administrative mess, with too much buck-passing. It is costly. It allows the private sector to take all the profits while leaving the taxpayer with the risk. It is an industry of strategic national interest. It is also a natural monopoly, like water (though we managed to privatise that too!): there is no genuine free market here, and so to pretend there is by going through the sham of a franchise and bidding process is just farcical.

But politics isn’t about principles. It’s about convenience. And it was convenient for the Tory Party of the 90s to sell it off, making a fast and easy buck. It freed them of the responsibility too. New Labour likes that very much. That’s why this will only be a “temporary” nationalisation.

More’s the pity. Let’s just say, if even Peter Oborne and John Prescott agree that the railways should be in public hands – well… we’re obviously having the piss taken out of us by our politicians again.

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