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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Who Will Rid Us Of This Troublesome Railway ?

When problems with Britain's railway system become headline news day after day you know that this silently corrosive issue has reached a critical point with the travelling public and taxpayers.

Not only do Britain's rail travellers pay the highest commuting fares anywhere across Europe (and probably the world) but they also now have the daily indignity of being crammed like sardines into dangerously overloaded carriages; mainly because the franchise operators opt to lease the minimal amount of rolling stock from middlemen equipment suppliers. Another wheeze slid into the railway privatisation bill rushed through Parliament in the dying days of the unlamented Major government.

Handsome commissions and fees for bucketloads of sharp eyed accountant types whose revenues forever flow forth as the result of the rail operator franchise carve up; and the attendant layer of leasing of rolling stock (ie wagons, carriages and motive power equipment - Roscos). All the heartache now being endured by millions up and down the country (its not just in the north these days) has come to a head after months of aggravated malaise due to RMT strikes protesting driver only operated trains ; coupled with top down mantra from the Department of Transport and Network Rail promising much with a complete rewrite of timetables, and delivering instead a total .......... up. So much so that MPs, City Region Mayors, lesser Mayors and politicians of all hues are joined in a chorus of condemnation and calling for heads to roll (if not the actual trains). And rightly so.

When a national news broadcast in prime time is beamed live from outside Preston Station with shoals of Blackpool Transport rail replacement buses in immediate proximity to the camera - you know that this is more than just a storm in the proverbial teacup. Well at least Blackpool Transport is doing a good job under contract shuttling back and forth from Blackpool North to Preston on smart, clean and stylish new buses.

Rail Replacement Services Preston to Blackpool and back - ably provided by BTS since November 2017 - and still going strong in June 2018.

Stylish travel from Preston Station to Blackpool North courtesy of BTS.

The railway privatisation policy of the then Conservative Government in its dying days under John Major's premiership - has proved to be an action which ignored public sentiment and foreseen consequences of bequeathing a national network to the clutching hands of for profit interests. This was indeed a privatisation too far. We are now witnessing the barren landscape of disgruntled railway staff, cancelled trains and a discordant system placing at risk the livelihoods, health and patience of millions of citizens forced to endure the daily toll of uncertain commutes and wasted hours on platforms.

Its time to call time on this misguided policy and bring back into public and central ownership an essential national utility. The practise of setting forth contract options tempting the highest bidder for this or that seven years or more operating franchise and expecting all the boxes to be ticked satisfying Treasury and Department calculations is patently unworkable (certainly in the Home Counties and Southeast - and now in the North and Northwest). British Railways/British Rail may not have enjoyed the most enviable reputation in its final years, starved as it was of government investment as privatisation became more than a gleam in politicians' eyes - but at least the trains did run on time, and timetables were adhered to with religious fervour by staff at all levels. And of course the ALL equipment (locomotives, carriages, freight and specialist vehicles) was carefully designed and built by British labour - directly giving sustained employment in towns like Doncaster, Crewe, Derby; among many others.

Governments have fallen for far less ineptitude on their watch. Even strong ones. It is not outside the realms of possibility that the current debacle which is Britain's privatised railway set up could well emerge as the achilles heel for the present one. The NHS has its own set of woes and horror stories despite the dedication of its frontline staff day in day out. But the rail network sustains the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of commuters, if not millions, and a fundamental disrepair in the system brings with it immediate reaction and repercussions. For the private rail operators to hide their corporate faces behind smooth talking spokesmen with endless apologies and blandishments is not going to do the trick. Putting in place responsible operating control and management representing the public interest is called for - not tomorrow or next year, but today.

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