Friday, January 02, 2015

Who wants to run the railways as though they were airlines?

Patrick McLoughlin was struggling on the Today programme this morning. He was asked why the train operating companies are allowed to get away with operating ticket machines that do not offer customers the cheapest fare for their journey.

For some odd reason - he is a politician in election year, after all - he was unwilling to offer any sort of populist attack on these companies and just floundered.

Then he thought of a clinching argument and you could hear the confidence return to his voice. You can't just turn up at an airport and buy a ticket on the day of travel, so why should you be able to do so on the railways?

If anyone had put forward this argument when the railways were being privatised in the last years of John Major's premiership they would have been laughed at.

Why should we run the railway industry like the airline industry? It certainly would not have encouraged anyone to support privatisation.

That this argument is now taken so seriously, and is even regarded by some as conclusive, is further evidence for George Ritzer's 'McDonaldization' theory, which I have blogged about before.

This holds that, far from increasing human freedom, the rise of corporate power requires us to behave in ever more circumscribed ways.

So, while it suits the train operating companies to run the railways as though they are airlines, it is not in the interests of their customers.

I will admit that some railway services have improved greatly since privatisation, but then so the public subsidy given to the railways has greatly increased over the same period.

Those two facts must, at least to some extent, be connected.


Devil's Kitchen said...

It's a little more complex than that.

I seem to remember seeing a report earlier this year (can't find it after a cursory search, but I'll keep trying) that the grants to the train operating companies (TOCs) was neutral this year.

However, that was an overall figure.

As usual, the South East is vastly subsidising the rest of the country: South West, Southern, and South Eastern, for instance, all paid substantial sums back to the government (over £330 million in South West's case).

However, all of this was wiped out by the hugely loss-making lines in most of the rest of the country—especially in the north and Scotland.

As such, as the report you cite is obscure but, as far as I can see, would tend to back this up in that most of the large chunks of cash are going to Network Rail. Which, as we know, is not, in fact, private (and is, indeed, now declared on the government's books).

This is not to say that "the railways" do not get massive subsidy, but it does show the danger of conflating "the railways" with "the train operating companies".


P.S. Certainly in the south, the railways have improved massively since privatisation. Anyone who says otherwise either doesn't actually use them much, or doesn't remember BR. Or, of course, like Caroline Lucas, they are lying for populist gain.

Devil's Kitchen said...

P.P.S. Here's the report that I mentioned above.

I misremembered about South West: they only repay £315 million to the Treasury—not over £330 million. And South Eastern did not repay any money (although they are bearing the burden of the HS1 costs and rejigs).