I was standing in a jam-packed Chiltern Railways train to London
the day Virgin lost its franchise torun
the West Coast Main Line.
I wasn't travelling on Sir Richard
Branson's route because it is too expensive. Though, to be fair, they usually
have enough seats to go round.
When an elderly lady joined the train at
Banbury I felt obliged to give up my seat even though the carriage was full of
There was also one youth hogging two
seats – one for his expansive posterior, the other for his expensive guitar.
He didn't have a ticket for his musical
instrument (I asked) and refused to shift it. Naturally the railway staff
steered clear of our train, where at least a dozen passengers were standing in
my coach alone.
Such is life on Britain
Yet rail travel is at its most popular
since the golden age of steam in the 1920s, despite the high fares.
It's a strange business, though: part
public service, part profitable enterprise.
Weep no tears for Sir Richard Branson as
he rages over losing the West Coast Main Line franchise. The service wasn't
particularly good and it was astonishingly expensive.
Our railways are there for capitalists
like Sir Richard to exploit. Squeeze as much cash as they can out the
passengers and gullible Governments and walk away if things go wrong.
That's what happened on the East Coast
Main Line where National Express, promising to pay£1.4 billion to the
Government, soon handed back the keys because it couldn't make a profit.
Sir Richard claims FirstGroup has
over-bid for the West Coast line, won't be able to meet its obligations and its
service will eventually hit the buffers.
FirstGroup says it will pay the
Government £13.3 billion or so over the 16-year life of the franchise compared
with Virgin's best offer of £11 billion.
Sir Richard's career has been sustained
on a diet of sour grapes so we needn't take his moans too seriously.
But the episode does reveal once again
how bizarre our railway business has become.
When British Rail was privatised, the
Government offered franchises to run different routes.
But the infrastructure all owned by a
separate company, Railtrack, which was scandalously nationalised in 2002 and
became Network Rail.
This system doesn't make any sense.
Railway companies should be responsible for the whole travelling experience
from safety to sandwiches.
Instead of raffling off its most
important railway line on the off-chance it will bring in a few billion quid
over a decade and a half, the Government should sell the West Coast line
Let Virgin or FirstGroup or some other
entrepreneurial business take on the whole thing –track, stations, signals,
trains, services, the lot.
At the same time, it should scrap all
controls over the cost of travelling by train and encourage more competition.
At the moment, fares rise according to
Government decree and taxpayers subsidise the entire system by about £4 billion
Incredibly, this is – after inflation –
four times as much as we used to spend in the bad old British Rail era.
To reduce its subsidy the Government has
decreed fares must rise by 6.2 per cent next year. Some commuters will see
their fares rise 11 per cent or more.
This has caused the usual outcry but it's
actually a very good thing. There can be no sense in a two-way traffic in money
between the Government and the rail companies.
More to the point, most of the price
controls are imposed to keep down the cost of commuting in and out of London
which, of all the
places in Britain
does not need a commuter subsidy.
Nobody is forced to work in London
they get paid extra for this dubious privilege.
Commuters should pay the full, hideous
price of travelling to the office instead of expecting the rest of us to
An end to rail subsidies in the South
East would benefit the rest of Britain
by persuading employers, and their staff, there are better places to live and
Commuting into London
is an unpleasant experience which involves standing in a sweaty coach with your
nose pressed up against someone else's arm-pit as the train lurches, jerks and
sways from station to station.
Of course with so many Tory MPs in the
South East and London Mayor Boris Johnson now the most popular politician in
the country, we can expect a battle to protect these subsidies.
But it can’t possibly make sense for the
taxpayer to pay for London
This doesn’t resolve the basic problem of
flogging off franchises in the hope the winners will actually deliver the
revenue they’re promising the Treasury.
We need real rail reform. The alternative
is a system lurching from one crisis to the next.
And there is something bizarre about the
fact that, as revenge, Sir Richard is planning to introduce flights from Manchester
for £95 – about £200 and two hours less than the second class rail fare.
Perhaps he'd like to try a service from
Halfpenny Green as well.