måndag 13 oktober 2008

A good time to renationalise the railways?

A good time to renationalise the railways? Transport journalist Christian Wolmar seems to think so. Of course the old nationalised railways did some excellent things but huge and often strategic mistakes were made, with matters being aggravated by political interference. It does not altogether matter how the railways are run if they have incompetent managers, of which there were too many in BR days, and they got in the way of the good ones and morale was often low. How they held down their jobs is a mystery but there was, reputedly, a masonic lodge at the old British Railways Board HQ in Marylebone Road. If this was true, it would explain quite a lot.

The main problem now is that important decisions are being taken by the technically illiterate, but that isn't new either - eg the proliferation of different types of incompatible rolling stock, all under the eye of successive rail regulators, who are the people who would end up running the nationalised railways. Had there been sound technical input, the railways would have developed in a very different way since 1996, but such people cannot be pulled out of a hat. The most experienced front-line BR engineers retired soon after privatisation but they would have gone by now anyway, and privatisation offers the possibility of bringing people in from the continent, where there is not an ingrained attitude we have in Britain, that the most respectable way to make a livelihood is by moving money around. Engineers are regarded as worthy of respect, and the involvement of companies like Deutsche Bahn and Netherlands Railway can only be a good thing.

Just to put things into perspective, a list of BR successes: Mark 1stock in all its variations and permutations, the BR standard steam locomotives, the HST, the mark 3 carriage, 25kV electrification, extension of 750V electrification, class 158 DMU, Sectorisation, the British Rail Technical Centre, the Pandrol clip, Train Protection and Warning System, RETB wireless signalling. Against that there is a horrible catalogue of bungles and waste.

Post privatisation successes have been a fleet of new trains, generally clean trains, refurbishment of trains, more frequent services, disabled access. Against that have been horrible design of many trains, complicated ticketing, engineering closures with poor alternatives laid on, horrendously expensive consultancy, micro-management of franchises by the Department of Transport, proliferation of incompatible and route-specific classes of rolling stock.

Privatisation would not address these faults.

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