Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

These great train robbers wear suits, not masks

The privatisation of railways across the water has been a great train robbery, says Eamonn McCann
The privatisation of railways across the water has been a great train robbery, says Eamonn McCann

The privatisation of railways across the water has been a great train robbery. Luckily, Northern Ireland Railways has so far escaped the robbers.

More taxpayers' money is being poured into the British private companies running rail transport than was paid in subsidies to State-owned British Rail before the system sold on the market in the 1990s.

This is like selling your house and then paying the new owner more every week than you'd previously been putting into rates and upkeep in order to ensure that she keeps the property shipshape – even if she doesn't.

Rail privatisation is up there in the insanity stakes with the flogging of Royal Mail last year for a billion less than its market value with a promise to underwrite the running costs if things didn't work out for the entrepreneurs who'd snapped it up on the cheap.

Among those who made fortunes by unloading their shares the moment the price rocketed to reach their real value were the individuals and institutions which had arranged the sale on behalf of the Government.

Nothing in any way illegal about any of this. There's a different legal framework in China. There, Prime Minister Cameron and Business Secretary Cable might have been executed (not that we'd wish that on them).

But back to rail. British Rail had its share of critics. Its curly-edged sandwiches were a national joke. The Loop Line from Dartford, which I used to take to work, would occasionally come to a halt for the most bizarre of given reasons.

It was commonly remarked by those who hated nationalised industries that this incompetent outfit was costing the public between a million and a million-and-a-half every year. This was key to the case for privatisation.

Now, the private operators are raking in around four billion a year of taxpayers' dosh, while put-upon passengers pray for a return to State ownership as they shiver in a siding with no money left from the staggering fares they've paid even to buy one of the still-curly sandwiches.

None of this causes the subsidised entrepreneurs to give over with their blather about the wonders of privatisation. They are profit-driven to extol the private sector.

In terms of progressive thought, Northern Ireland Railways is miles ahead. This doesn't mean that NIR is particularly progressive, but that the rail privateers of Britain operate on assumptions that manage to be quaintly Dickensian and City-slicker cynical at the same time.

In Britain, the track network is in the public sector, run by Network Rail. The trains that run on the track are in the hands of different groups of companies franchised for different regions. The result is a financial and operational mess.

But just last month the Rail Delivery Group released a report compiled by private consultants. The RDG represents both the private train operators and the public sector track company.

Eleven of its 14 board members are from the private side. Its chairman is Martin Griffiths – CEO of private company Stagecoach. He replaced Tim O'Toole, CEO of private operator FirstGroup.

The consultants found everything hunky-dory. Passenger numbers were rising faster than in other major European countries. For complex reasons, this was an over-simplified calculation. And, anyway, the proper comparison was not with trains on the Continent, but with Northern Ireland Railways.

What made private operators in Britain drool with pleasure was that, in the 10 years to April 2014, passenger journeys had increased by 57%. Not bad, but no cigar.

In the same period NIR figures rose by 90%. Why wasn't that mentioned? Possible because the better performance of the public-sector NIR would have exploded the myth that the RDG was out to promote.

On every other relevant measure, too, the network in the North comes out on top.

None of this is to say that all's well with NIR. Far from it. The different levels of investment in particular lines is a bone of contention, particularly in the north west. The failure/refusal of the Department for Regional Development, apparently with the connivance of NIR, to acquire and return to its original use the magnificent Waterside station is little short of a disgrace.

There'll be more about NIR's shortcomings, possibly in this space next week.

But the reasonable discontents of rail travellers here should not detract from the fact that, when it comes to governance of the rail network, our public sector system is neat and tidy, efficient and economical, when compared with the privatised shambles they have made of rail in Britain.

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