I’ve not blogged in a while due to various things - mainly time - but I watchedQuestion Time last night on BBC1 and Will Self has inspired me. I have for a long time held that the renationalising the railways was a lost opportunity of the Labour Governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I can understand why Gordon didn’t as the financial crisis and leading the world out of it was absolutely necessary, but a Labour government under Blair reneged on one of it’s most important pre-election pledges.
On 1st January 1947 British Transport came into being under whose control were the waterways, long distance haulage on the roads alongside, and most importantly, the railways. Previous to this happening there existed the Big Four Rail companies in the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), London, Midland and Scottish (LMS), the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the Southern Railway. These had driven investment in the railways since their formation under the Grouping Act of 1922. However, by the end of World War Two it had become clear that the only possible route for an effective railway was it’s control by the state. This proved true until, under John Major, British Rail was privatised with the rails themselves being removed from the control of the railway companies - meaning that the people in charge of companies could not dictate when improvements could take place - leading to real problems with maintenance as evidenced in major derailments or crashes such as that at Hatfield on 17th October 2000.
This disconnect between the Rail companies and the track has increased to the point where disruption comes almost as a shock to those running train companies. Indeed, on a recent trip home it took me around 2h 10mins to get from York to Peterborough rather than the usual 1h 10mins± and involved going via Gainsborough to get to Newark. Whilst this may seem a bit nerdy, there was no mention of diversion on the station or at any point of the journey on the train itself. Surely if we had a truly integrated network run by the state there would be a better integration of information to allow passengers to know what could happen to their journey and therefore how long it will take to get home?
On to more important things - the re-nationalisation of the railway network would allow for quite a few things, but only if it takes the form of the 1947 Transport Act. One thing to recognise about the railways is that, bizarrely, we already have a partially nationalised service in many parts of the country in the guise of DB Shenker - a subsidiary of the German State railway operator - providing its services as parent company for many of our railway companies; including York based Grand Central. This is not a bad thing per se, many of the contracts that DB Shenker have won have seen massive improvements in the quality of trains provided as well as a massive amount of modernisation. However, it does beg the question - why can’t this then be the same for the rest of the country? Surely, therefore BR is the only solution? As it provides the same service for all passengers.
There are two main benefits to it’s reinstatement and the re-nationalisation of the railways, first it would bring the cost of transport down for the vast majority of passengers on two levels. The starting point of Will Self’s excellent rebuttal of the status quo for funding of train companies is that the subsidy for them has reached the point where it is at the £4bn per year mark, whereas under BR it was only around £1bn. So basically we, as taxpayers (and yes I do pay tax despite being a student), are footing the bill for an increase of around £3bn which goes directly to the shareholders not the passenger or track improvements. It now costs me around £37.50 to get from York to Peterborough to get home, whereas in 2008 when I first started at The University of York it cost £22±, in the last 3/4 years there has been an increase of £15.50 or 70% of the latter cost. I know there will be people asking “So what? Students have a guranteed income” and in many respects they can said to be right. But, what about those people on low incomes, who are paying tax and also paying for their daily needs? An increase of £15.50 is a massive impact on theaverage wallet, let alone the wallet of a student or of someone feeding a family on minimum wage on their own.
That person on minimum wage will, generally but not always, be in a service sector job - which is where the second level of Bring Back BR comes in. Under BR there were thousands of highly skilled and highly paid jobs for those people who worked on or for the railways - either as drivers, designers or engineers. The re-nationalisation of the railways could allow for the reinvestment in areas of previous railway manufacturing (rather than just maintenance) such as Swindon, York, Doncaster and others. After all if people don’t earn money they don’t spend, if there’s no spending the economy cannot grow, if the economy cannot grow then new jobs cannot be created, if new jobs aren’t created we cannot possibly begin to “reskill” the workforce and if this is not done then the UK cannot regain - or at least attempt something towards regaining - the title of “The Workshop of the World”.
Indeed, I used to watch Michael Portillo’s “Great British Railway Journeys” (NB the link is not the programme I mentioned) and one in particular has stuck out in my mind since watching it. On arriving in Swindon, Portillo goes in search of the GWR Houses that railway workers used to live in and wanders round marvelling at the design of such houses, as well as engine sheds now turned into expensive flats or worse demolished. He then comes across a former BR employee whom he asks: “What happened to the [railway] industry in Swindon?” To which Portillo gets the response “Your government!”
If we are ever to beat such a sentiment as the above then governments must move beyond the expected quasi-Thatcherite mould and be brave. Increased spending, as was seen under Gordon Brown after the financial crisis, results in more jobs, a better paid workforce and fewer people on benefits who will in turn spend more, therefore decreasing the benefits burden on the state and also at the same time allow for a better skilled workforce which is able to grow into rather than shrink in horror from the future. Through this we being to believe in our workforce and also in ourselves - confidence is just as important as “events”, but without confidence events cannot happen! By Bringing Back BR we would be showing a confidence not yet shown by the Tory-led government, in the Great British public, which would allow for greater levels of interdependence and community building. But, until that happens I can only think of one thing that we are heading towards - the slow train to nowhere!