Thursday, 19 November 2009

Rail companies have their heads in the sand

The London Evening Standard frequently carries letters to the editor griping about transport issues in the London area. Often these letters are silly and unreasonable -- as also were, in reality, many of the complaints once made about British Rail. But not always. Here is one from earlier this week:

The complaint in this case seems entirely reasonable, and yet South West Trains is generally regarded in the industry as one of the better operators. There appears to be a huge gap between the reality as perceived by most passengers and the fantasy world inhabited by the TOCs, who in the trade press always seem to be congratulating themselves on how well they think they are doing.

Until lately, among the specialist press, only Barry Doe in RAIL and Alan Williams in Modern Railways have expressed, from the passenger's point of view, a suitable degree of irritation with the train companies' many failings. It is good to see that in recent weeks the editor of RAIL, Nigel Harris, has started pointing out that we cannot go on like this. He doesn't agree with the above letter-writer's view about renationalisation, but he is calling loudly for root-and-branch reform of, in particular, the absurd and inequitable fares structure.

Myself, I think Harris is wrong to perpetuate the myth that nationalisation is obviously a bad idea. Not all state-owned organisations are inefficient. BR got a lot of things right, within the constraints under which it had to operate. Paradoxically, there was less direct government control then than there is now: BR in many ways had an arms-length relationship with government, rather like the BBC. But it is probably true that in terms of practical politics, renationalisation is a non-starter. If it was going to happen, it needed to happen when Labour came to power in 1997 on precisely that promise, on which they immediately reneged.

But there is a lot that could be done to improve things. One excellent suggestion, from Roger Ford of Modern Railways, is to reconstitute a single InterCity, albeit as a private-sector franchise. It was a great brand and mostly quite a good product. But that won't help Sarah of Shepperton, of course.

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