Thursday, March 01, 2007

Virgin on the ridiculous

Simon Jenkins recently wrote in the Guardian:

In my youth I was a rail enthusiast and member of the board of British Rail. I was sure of the need to privatise the railway, to free managerial blockages and liberate its entrepreneurial spirit. But one thing was vital, to retain the vertical management crucial to operational discipline. If the railway were to be divided, it should be as in the old days, into integrated regional companies, with managers controlling assets, risks and balance sheets as one.

Between 1991 and 1993 this argument was lost. John Major, Norman Lamont and the transport secretary, John MacGregor, conceded the Treasury view that the route to greater rail efficiency led, via the City of London, to vertical fragmentation and internal subcontracting. The daily discipline needed to run a railway could be replicated by private incentives backed by contract law. The result was the Railways Act 1993.

The act was a blunder, a fiasco, a nonsense, intellectually grotesque, one of the worst passed by any postwar parliament. It was the classic work of stupid and arrogant men thinking that because they sat in London chatting to highly paid bankers and consultants they must know better than horny-handed sons of toil.

A good example of what is wrong with way the railways are currently run comes from my favourite newspaper, the Shropshire Star.

It is now some years since Shrewsbury has enjoyed a direct rail service to London. Indeed the service was ended just after a great deal of public money was spent building a new station at Telford. Nowadays you have to change at Wolverhampton to reach Telford, Shrewsbury and points beyond.

Recently, a new company - the Wrexham, Shropshire & Marylebone Railway - has been promoting the idea of restoring a direct service from London to Shrewsbury and North Wales. A good idea, you might think. Just the sort of entrepreneurial energy that privatisation was meant to set free.

Not a bit of it. As the Star reports:
Shropshire’s direct rail link to London has hit the buffers following objections from train giant Virgin.

The company bidding to restore non-stop services to the capital has announced it is scrapping its current bid and will now submit fresh plans.

Virgin Trains is objecting to the Wrexham, Shropshire & Marylebone Railway (WSMR) Company’s scheme to run trains to the capital.

The West Coast Mainline operator has a contract which protects it from competition on the line from Wolverhampton to London. It is also worried about extra services clogging up the busy route.

It means the Office of Rail Regulation, which oversees all train companies, will reject the WSMR bid, forcing it to change plans.
The irony, I am told by those who know about such things, is that the railways are now more closely controlled by Whitehall than they were during the Second World War. There was far more scope for innovation under dear old British Rail and its curly sandwiches.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, you have hit the nail on the head, about the railways, but it is not only the railways that are closely controlled from whitehall.

I fully support the opening of new stations, and rail links. Good thread. Keep it up, curly sandwiches and all.