I penned the bulk this prior to the SNP having a pop at the UK Government over much the same territory. This is either: (a) further evidence of the pernicious grip of SNP HQ over its members, co-ordinating their message with a control freakery even Mandelson would blanch at; or (b) an example of my recurring procastination making me look like a bit of a behind the curve fud. Take your pick.
In now traditional fashion, the annual fare increases for our, in defiance of dictionary compilers the world over, rail ‘network’, were announced, ridiculed, declaimed, attacked, mocked and pilloried, at a pace no Fife Circle SuperSprinter could dream of achieving. From the cacophony of outrage appeared to come two things:
1) Rail fares are too high, and we have a thing or two to learn from the continent in such matters, and;
2) The whole thing should be nationalised, a refrain that’s been ongoing ever since we entered the wacky world of John Major and his quite possibly psychotropically-spurred framework of rail franchises and privatisation.
The truth is, neither of these things will happen under any of the potential governments Westminster Celebrity Squares might throw our way. You might as well ask for the jetpack off Santa’s back for all the probability these eminently sensible (and fiscally sound) changes will get made this side of a fundamental alteration to the fabric of British politics. The web of legislation, directive and ideology surrounding transport policy, which stand in the way of any sensible reform of a system even the nominally free-market USA would laugh out of town, can never be altered while the two main UK parties continue to alternate as the frontmen and women of UK plc.
An oft-quoted statistic floating on my Twitter feed this week was the fact a Glasgow – Edinburgh season ticket on Scotrail cost more than a season ticket for the entire German railway system (a fact so preposterous, yet simultaneously all too believable, that I haven’t bothered to check whether it’s true or not). But those high prices aren’t going to change; instead they’ll grow higher right across the board. That’s because this and previous UK governments want to reduce the subsidy paid to run rail services, ultimately to zero. The fantasy of the free-marketeers (and fantasy pretty much covers it) is a system that pays for itself, save a few tourist lines and services too politically contentious to bin completely – the latter being almost entirely centred around London and its umpteen commuter routes in and out of the shires and South Coast. This wouldn’t be the first time such bampottery’s been tried – some bloke had a go in the 1960s – but would be the first attempt that’s been shoved through on almost entirely ideological grounds, with a nice side order of corporate and interest group capture. Even Thatcher, long before the days of her existence on this mortal coil was under scrutiny, binned another loads of tired systems analysis that proposed to axe 84% of lines UK-wide and pump up fares to pay for the rest. Yet the rightists in control of the Westminster driver’s cab have spent 20 years attempting to do what their heroine realised was impossible – run a mass regional and national public transport network on hot air and blethers. Even the aforementioned US, where national rail operator Amtrak operate only one service (the Northeast Corridor) that could reasonably be compared to the type of long-distance service used in the UK, operating subsidies amount to over half a billion dollars – and that doesn’t include regional public transport networks with commuter rail like Boston’s MBTA (c. $900million per annum) or the MTA in New York (a stonking $5.4 billion). At this stage it’s traditional to also bore you with further reams of stats from various beacons of wholesomeness across Western Europe and Scandanavia, but quite frankly, when the city at the heart of the global capital shifts and deregulated financial instruments we’ve all come to know and love over these last few years is chucking over five billion dollars at their rail network, it’s not really worth looking at Copenhagen in those terms. Sorry Birgitte.
Yet there is simply no sign of the zero-sum game undertaken by Westminster stopping any time soon. And of course, with Scotland’s budget determined by the Barnett consequentials from (English) Department for Transport budgets, the more government expenditure on fare subsidy shrinks, the less we receive every year; and that’s without factoring the already ongoing Barnett squeeze that affects the totality of the devolved fiscal settlement every year. In short, if the Scottish Government wanted to reverse the pattern of above RPI fare rises and move towards a more balanced formula for train operating costs, cuts would need to be made elsewhere in devolved spending. That doesn’t seem likely, or indeed politically popular.
It’s the same story when it comes to nationalisation. The starting point for any and all discussions about it is the Railways Act 1993, which as mentioned above is the structural framework for railway operations in the UK (slightly amended by the 2005 Act & some alterations regarding London Crossrail). Section 25 is pretty clear:
(1)The following bodies and persons (in this Part referred to as “public sector operators”) shall not be franchisees—
(a)any Minister of the Crown, Government department or other emanation of the Crown;
(b)any local authority;
(d)any body corporate whose members are appointed by a Minister of the Crown, a Government department, a local authority
(i)a majority of whose issued shares are held by or on behalf of any of the bodies or persons falling within paragraphs (a) to (d) above;
(ii)in which the majority of the voting rights are held by or on behalf of any of those bodies or persons;
(iii)a majority of whose board of directors can be appointed or removed by any of those bodies or persons; or
(iv)in which the majority of the voting rights are controlled by any of those bodies or persons, pursuant to an agreement with other persons;
(f)a subsidiary of a company falling within paragraph (e) above.
In short – if you want to run a rail passenger service in the UK, you’d better make sure none of the hideous stench of public accountability and control is wafting around your prospectus. That’s why you’ll hear periodic vague noises from opposition parties about some nebulous not-for-profit social enterprise being awarded the franchise – but bugger all about proper public ownership (Incidentally, given Richard Branson reckons it cost around £14million just to put a bid together for the West Coast set-up, a bid for Scotrail would factor into the millions as well. If a co-op wanted to stick in a cheeky wee bid, they’d better have deep pockets).
Again, the political will to change this simply does not exist at Westminster – and only Westminster can change it. This is despite the fact 70% of the public support nationalisation. Labour had 13 years, during which they faffed about with Strategic Rail Authorities, Railtrack (ahhh, memories) and the rest, and in the end were so frightened of anything smelling of state ownership that even after Railtrack went belly-up, Gordon Brown’s recreated Network Rail was plopped into a nether-world of stakeholders and interest groups, a large motivation for which was (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) keeping the balance sheet off the Treasury books. As for the Tories – well, when you’re planning to punt the motorways to Chinese sovereign wealth funds, you’re unlikely to be eager to assert the principle of democratic control of strategic infrastructure.
In short, we’re stuck with the rail network we’ve got, by and large – and remember successive Scottish Governments & Executives have been pretty good on this score within the powers they’ve got, with the Stirling – Alloa, Larkhall, and Airdrie – Bathgate lines all successfully completed and operating beyond expectation – until and unless those powers retained under the Railways Acts are transferred to Holyrood. Within the bounds of the current narratives of constitutional change, that can only mean independence and full sovereign powers over vital public assets.
As for the fares, that’s both a cultural and fiscal challenge. The fiscal, as you’d expect from someone who believes that with progressive taxation and the sensible management of finite resources Scotland will be a wealthy country, isn’t too much of a problem over the medium and long-term. But changing the culture that defines our attitudes to public transport is harder. The reluctance to accept that, for inter and intra-urban at least, the car is on the way out, has only grown harder over recent decades. Even my party have had their moments of triggering the quiet gnashing of teeth – the M74 extension being one. It requires nothing less than a completely new political framework, new parties, new people, and an about-turn in where our political institutions take their cues – turning our backs on the hyper-capitalism of the Cities of London & Westminster, and looking across the North Sea for our guide. Those Cities have had their repeated chances to reflect the wishes and interests of the people, and have failed.
It’s only independence and full democratic control of our assets that gives us a chance – just and only that, a chance – of building a rail system that serves the people, not the other way around.