Well…I do, and I know lots of readers of this blog do. The most popular site that you’ve clicked through to from this blog over the first five months of this blog is…the New Adlestrop Map which maps much of England’s old rail network before Beeching ripped it up.
Stereotypical popular culture tends to relegate all things transport as something uncool that only trainspotters in old anoraks are interested in. You don’t get the music industry over here making top tracks about “Station Road” like our continental cousins.
– By Tape Five
I think trainspotters & other rail enthusiasts are great – they are the eyes and ears of the rail network. They also do what they do for free. Without them, the network would be in an even worse state than it already is.
I’ve blogged before about housing and transport. Transport – and trains are in the news today because it’s the annual fare rises that kick in. Having watched the money drain from my salary during my commuting days, and given what’s happening to inflation vs low salary/wage rises, I wonder how close to the ‘tipping point’ employees are getting before they say to employers that they can no longer afford to work for them due to the costs of getting to & from work.
One of the things that I have been toying with is trying to collate an evidence base around the state of our transport network along with a quantitative analysis of past policies (including rail privatisation) on said network. My own view of rail privatisation is that it was done in a manner that made its reversal nigh on impossible. The BBC points the finger at this lot for the privatisation, one of whom (Sir George Young) is now Leader of the House of Commons.
The latest fare rises have brought up renewed calls for renationalisation – which is my preferred system on the grounds that railways are a natural monopoly. You don’t have lots of firms competing against each other providing broadly similar services. There’s not enough land to go round for a start. There are also very few substantial alternatives (e.g. road or short-haul air, the latter of which is subsidised as aviation fuel is not taxed).
I also have issues with the privatised and fragmented system because of accountability issues. Who’s accountable when stuff goes wrong? In the mind of the general public, they don’t see the separation of Network Rail and the train operating companies and the rolling-stock-owning companies (ROSCOs – that in my view bleed the railways dry – look at those profit margins). The general public just wants to get from A to B promptly, safely and comfortably, on time and not get ripped off in the process. Life’s too short for most of them to look into the intricacies of who does what. It’s the same with politics. Most people don’t separate the executive from the legislature. When government ministers moan that ‘it’s a problem for Parliament to solve, people don’t see the niceties of Whitehall structures. You’re a politician paid by tax payers: sort it out!
The above you could say are issues of principle – economic, political and public administration. Those in favour of privatisation could point to their own such principles of trying to bring in market forces to force greater efficiencies in the railway network. But what does the data say? This for me is where campaigners in favour of renationalising the railways need to go. Things like:
- Comprehensive data of state subsidies to the railway network over the past 30 years. How much was the government subsidising the rail network by in the run up to privatisation, what were the figures post privatisation and post-railtrack?
- A breakdown of that data to cover capital and revenue spending. How much went on stations? How much went on the tracks and signals? How much went on rolling stock?
- Given the profit margins of rolling stock companies, how much of a stake does the government get in the rolling stock purchases that it subsidises? In the latest round, we the tax payer subsidised the purchase of £188million of new rolling stock to the tune of £80million. Who owns the asset? Or have we just handed over all of that money to the rolling stock companies to clean up? The same question arises with the Crossrail contract of £1.4billion. Who will own the rolling stock? Will we, the taxpayer get some of the revenue that comes from leasing the rolling stock or will the rolling stock companies clean up – again?
- Over the same 30 year period, what has been the expenditure and profit margins of all private firms? I assume Companies House will have that information but part of the challenge will be finding out which firms were working on the railways given the fragmentation and extensive and poorly managed subcontracting that was in part responsible for a number of high profile accidents such as Hatfield and Potters Bar.
- How much money was spent in the years post-privatisation on procurement, contracting and sub-contracting? How did this compare to arrangements pre-privatisation in terms of costs, deliverables and outcomes?
- What has been the additional upfront investment (i.e. that was not reinvested revenue) that has come into the railways as a result of privatisation? What is the net figure when comparing the amount of money that has gone into the network versus money that has leeched out of it?
- What has been the change in the amount of money raised/collected as a result of increasing fares over the past 30 years? (Both annually and comparing pre and post-privatisation figures).
Broader questions and issues include:
- What have been the changes in the number of people employed on the railways and in the types of jobs people do? Have they become more skilled? Less skilled? More clerical/managerial/administrative? What impact have technological advances had on the railways? Where have they led to increased costs? Where have they led to decreased costs? Where have they led to better and more reliable services?
- How many rail lines have been built and/or reopened since privatisation? What has been the economic impact? How many jobs have been created (or reasonably attributed) to the opening of those lines? (Think the old East London Line and the integration of London Overground into the London Tube Network. Compare the old tube maps of the late 1990s to the maps of today – and ponder the differences that having an integrated network (and a map that publicises the Overground routes) now have. Exactly.
- Which politician or which organisation has strategic oversight of where the transport and rail network is going in the future? Who has the vision for example to drive the re-connection of Oxford and Cambridge? Who has the vision to see the benefits of extending such a line all the way out to Norwich and Bristol respectively, potentially taking off a lot of traffic going into London? Who has the vision to make similar observations in other parts of the country? The New Adlestrop Atlas misses out the North of England. In my view that project needs to be completed and digitised in a manner I set out in the section titled Making the old railway map useable in my blogpost about Open data for transport infrastructure. I’d like to think that visualising the potential on a map might just stimulate the minds of people who can make these things happen. (One for a university geography department or research unit to take on? Cambridge University did a historical one for the 19th Century) Given the parlous economic state of parts of the north of England in particular, I’d like to think that investment in transport infrastructure could help reverse the decades of decline. We know that transport spending is skewed towards London. For me it’s not a case of less spending for London and more for the north, investment should be increased across the board – especially at times like this. Hence it will be interesting to see what impact future infrastructure bonds will have in particular on investment in rail infrastructure. Will the Government be able to leverage funds locked up in pension and insurance companies (that need lower risk investments) to kick start investment in transport that might help to alleviate some of the economic problems?