Wednesday, January 23, 2008

JP gets on his high horse again (revisited)

Some of you may have read that First Great Western's passengers are planning a Fare Strike. You can find out about it here , for example

Voicing dissatisfaction is all well and good, but hang on. Fatalities on the line? Floods? You can't blame FGW for that. Overcrowding? Not just FGW at fault. And - see my last railway rant - it was Southern who threw their passengers out into the cold and sent the train on fast. At least, in my experience, FGW staff are generally very polite and helpful when there is a problem.

My biggest problem with all this however is that the organisers state "persauding the government to take back the franchise" as one of their aims.

Hang on a minute. This is the same government whose Deparment for Transport has caused well documented problems for FGW by messing about with rolling stock allocation.

The same government whose demand for large franchise payments has been a significant factor in recent fare rises. And does all this money get reinvested in the railways, or does it end up elsewhere in the big murky pot known as 'government spending' (in which case it's another tax)? I'm not certain, but I think I know the answer...*

And finally, this is the same government who are currently threatening a cut in public spending at the next budget.

So who in their right mind would want them to take the franchise back?

The problem here is that this could be seen as a black and white 'privatisation or not' argument, which it isn't. Whichever side of that fence you stand there are pros and cons, and it winds me up when rational people, who ordinarily would stand back and consider the wider picture, feel that at all costs the grass is greener with the government. It's a blinkered, intolerant "private companies are bad" mentality which leads to the weird belief that despite their track record** in other areas the government would be perfect at running the railway.

There might have been problems with the post-privatisation era (possibly stemming from the way in which it was implemented), but governments of both persuasions were previously to blame for years of chronic under-investment. At the end of the day I don't care how the job is done, I just want it done properly. Personally I blame the government for the fact that it has not been the case for a while, and I find it hard to go running to them now for a solution.

*Northern Rock. Or people who eat too much, by the looks of things.

**Excuse the pun.


Alasdair said...

The government subsidy for the railway in the UK is pretty big, something like £5 billion per year, the increase in franchise fees isn't nearly enough to wipe that out.

First Group made around £100 million profit from railways last year. If you think that the government micromanage to such an extent that they are to blame for FGW's problems, then do you think there is much FGW can change or improve, driven by the goal of greater profit? Which might suggest that the government should take the franchises in house, and spend the £100 million on the railways instead of dividends.

I don't agree with your assumption that all money raised in fares (or similarly, from green taxes) should have to be spent on Railways (or environmental issues). Accountability is one argument, but it isn't necessarily the best use of the revenue raised.

JP said...

Just because First Group made such a big profit last year doesn't imply that their Greater Western franchise did. Furthermore, they have clearly invested some money back in to the franchise; I for one quite liked the refurbished trains I commuted on last year, and I noticed the other day that the facilities at Reading Station have been really well done up as well.

It's interesting what you say about "micromanagement to the extent that it's better for the government to take the franchise back."
The cynic in me says that that's the plan. Re-nationalisation would not have been a popular thing to put through parliament, but with a bit of subtle meddling the people themselves are now crying out for it, as the leaflet I referred to shows. Of course, I'm not blaming the government or the DfT entirely, but they have caused problems. They have stipulated all sorts of things regarding the rolling stock - what, and how much they can have - and haven't as far as I understand it stuck to the plans made when the franchise was tendered. That is the prime cause of the overcrowding.

Incidentally, I could be cynical again here. After preventing FGW from having the extra 'Sprinter' trains they needed to supplement their existing fleet, because they were sent elsewhere in the country instead, they partially offset this by transferring older 'railbuses' which I think are pretty terrible. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Cornwall isn't a Labour Heartland, whereas it was Northern Rail who got to swap the 'raibuses' for something better...

Anyway, I know that the internet is like statistics in that you can use it to prove anything you want, but there does seem to be quite a lot out there to back up my point about DfT interference. is also an interesting resource.

Finally, Alasdair, I think we're agreed about accountability for the money. I'm not sure if I agree with you about investing only some of it back in the railways or not; lack of investment for this reason is why I am not pro-nationalisation. Now, whereas road tax has never been invested fully in roads and so on, I do think in this day and age that we should be investing in the trains, particularly if the government wishes to encourage us to use public transport. Personally, I'd rather know that my four-figure season ticket pays for improvements in the service I use, and isn't wasted on some harebrained scheme like paying fat people to lose weight.