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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Foreign Owned And Over Here

Britain's railway privatisation rushed through in the dying stages of John Major's unlamented government - is now representative of all that is wrong with privatisation of national utilities under the Conservatives. With possible exception of Chiltern Trains running into London from Birmingham, Oxford and points in between, and the credible management of Scottish rail services (and those of Northern Ireland) under devolved governments - many of the country's rail services are owned and managed by foreign entities. Perhaps most notably the lamentable franchise covering the northwest of England now branded as 'Northern'.

It is perhaps no surprise that the City Region Mayors of Manchester and Liverpool have joined together today (with others) to formally affirm their views that the current franchise holder should be stripped of its control and license - and the franchise reverts to government control for the good of the communities it serves. Despite the clever branding tricks of rail operators, Northern is owned principally by German interests, as it was under its previous franchisee - Northern Rail. This fact is of course the tip of the iceberg, when under the deregulation and privatisation mantra of Conservative governments - the UK sold off ownership of water, electricity, airports, ports and much more including railways - to eager buyers outwith these islands. What appears British to the core can be very misleading to the average citizen - just think of 'Boots' and 'WH Smith', 'Cadburys'. Closer to home, Associated British Ports (ABP) has actual ownership vested in foreign shores.

Whilst this policy provided a patina of modernisation and change for the better in the subsequent and myriad rebranding schemes adorning trains and the like - as well as releasing pent up demand for improved rolling stock (through third party leasing companies raking in large profits) - the fundamentals of Britain's commuters being held to ransom by high fares and short trains lacking capacity for the increasing numbers of travellers in peak hours - are all now chickens coming home to roost. The rail operators pretend all is well and we should all be grateful for shiny new rolling stock with flashy new liveries and colours - but the taxpayer subsidies still being churned out by the Treasury to the railway 'industry' remains a cornerstone benefit on the bottom line of foreign shareholders and cadres of business management types pushing more of the same please on the DfT.

Below : The way we were

Blackpool's upgraded (electrified) lines into North (and South) stations exemplify the minimalism of our privatised railways. Whereas once the much vaunted regeneration of Talbot Gateway was portraying brand new infrastructure and integrated transport links - in fact we have ended up with a new paint job on the 1930s concrete Excursion Hall; rows of exhaust spewing taxis outside, and a grim walk between tatty frontages along Talbot Road to the promenade. Eventually a tram service will traverse the same scene at least affording visitors both arriving and departing Blackpool's North railway terminal the option of avoiding both streetscape dereliction and solicitation of beggars; as well as cacaphonic music emanating from drinking dens predominating in the town centre.

Whether or not Blackpool Council share in urgent views of the northwest's two principal urban regions on the mismanagement and indifference of Northern to its rail service delivery across the northwest is a moot point. A quick viewing of that other mainline terminal - at Blackpool South is more than sufficient to cast doubt on the state of rail infrastructure on the Fylde coast. That single track dead end bleak platform vista welcoming visitors to South Shore and the resort, is in and of itself testimony to the real decline of rail travel along the Fylde coast as far as passenger care is concerned.

Our own Council, as with many others, is struggling to keep basic services afloat on the back of annual and sustained cuts to grants from central Government - whilst facing increased social care needs brought on through no fault of its own. Any discretionary expenditure on infrastructure is now minimal. Just a look at the Town Hall with peeling and faded paint, scruffy signage and windows badly in need of a clean says it all. Next door the once upmarket Clifton Hotel (in a period structure) looks as if it is condemned and subject to a demolition order; despite its operation by an international hospitality brand. Probably the new edifice under construction across Talbot Square is going to finally put the nail into the Clifton's days as a hotel. In contrast Bickerstaffe House, where the real work of the Council's employees is undertaken, has regular attention from window cleaners (they have plenty to deal with).

Blackpool North will receive its own jolt when the abysmal concrete bunker housing the Wilko retail business is finally knocked down - removing at one glance this unseemly carbuncle from that is promised to be a whole new reinvigorated civic district. By that time it may well be that a new government has determined to show its hand as far as the North of England is concerned by actions and deeds - and Blackpool's resort status gains credible financial upgrade in conjunction with private sector deliverables. A modernised railway station would be a good start - together with revival of the south Fylde rail service to something more than its one train an hour shuttle and bare platform terminal. Until a future policy change and mindset in London gets a grip - our privatised railways will continue to extract optimal returns for their foreign based shareholders (and some in the UK) as opposed to a national exchequer for reinvestment and more equitable fares.

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