West Coast: what a way to run a railway

Once upon a time, Britain’s railways were owned by us. British Railways weren’t perfect, but by the late 1980s the service was rather good. New trains were being introduced, and the taxpayer got rather a good deal: BR was one of most efficient, and least subsidised, railway networks in the world. Clever marketing attracted millions more passengers – under the slogan The Age of the Train. (Although the choice of Jimmy Savile may not seem so wise today…) And even the much maligned sandwich was transformed by 1993.

Then political dogma intervened and John Major privatised the lot, even though respected Tory MP and rail expert Robert Adley warned the sell-off would be a poll tax on wheels. Major wanted a return to the ‘big four’ railways but we got First Great Western not the Great Western Railway. The result: a privately owned railway that is hugely more subsidised than when it was state owned, and a bureaucracy that defies belief.

Today, the flaws in that system were shockingly exposed when the Government was humiliated by being forced to scrap the award of the West Coast main line franchise to First Group. Amazingly, the Department of Transport got its sums wrong, which meant incumbent Virgin lost to First Group’s extravagantly optimistic bid, as Robert Peston explained in his blog.

Transport expert Christian Wolmar described rail privatisation in his book On the wrong line as “A malicious attack on an industry the Tories disked, with calamitous results”. (Labour hardly improved things in its 13 years in power.) Today, he commented:

“Civil servants come and go, and are deliberately trained to be generalists, while the railways need specialists. They also need stability rather than ministers who come and go at the whim of the Prime Minister. It is all too obvious that the way that the Department has been treated as a dumping ground for ministers on the way up or down is also part of the problem.”

Some of the private rail companies have done a good job, including our local line, Chiltern Railways. But Chiltern had a flying start because British Rail transformed every aspect of the line 20 years ago: new track, signalling and trains.

Three civil servants have been suspended because of the West Coast scandal. But no politician will lose their job. No politician will resign. They never do.

PS: BR was a pioneer of modern corporate identity. Its 1965 logo remains as relevant, modern and recognisable 47 years on, acting as a beacon in a fragmented, muddled rail network. Strange to think we still had steam hauled intercity express trains when it first appeared.

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