The Great British Railways: In which we fall backwards

“All in a day’s work,” wrote Dickens, describing a journey on London’s first real commuter railway. “Ride, and all’s well.” The 50-year-old article that opened the passage was produced at the end of the 19th century by Renton, “the world’s most genteel railway inspector”, for the Independent Transportation Association.

The Frontier Bill, a franchise that transferred passenger and freight train service from the ancient Great Western Railway to the newly state-owned British East India Company, has just expired. If the Government doesn’t renew the franchise, which could take as long as three years, London will again be deprived of rail commuter travel to and from both the city and outer suburbs. The tourist industry may also be disrupted, as it would presumably have to spend the time booking tables for trans-Atlantic cruise ships.

Even without the disruption, the new franchise system is an unmitigated disaster. Following a successful monopoly – that is, government-backed monopoly – the Company invested in an elaborate system of stations, control rooms, ticket machines, station buildings, signalling, electric cars, motors, and even on-board locomotives, with even trains covered in tiles that could be disassembled to fit into a timetable. This system, intended to allow frequent east-west crossing and transfer of trains on the go, even had running water. It did nothing whatsoever to speed up the service or break down the delays and frequency of queues.

A franchise allowed the provider to set fares and own the trains themselves. Under no control whatsoever. Until 2017, public subsidy totaled £2.7 billion a year. And no one knew what a public-private partnership was, though the government seemed more likely to start the venture and take the risk than the private player. Eventually, it became the single most important restructuring in British public service in a hundred years.

The Bill was initiated by the Liberal Party, which wanted to save the Network Rail and give railway services a more valuable role in the national economy. It passed, with no debate at all, under an amendment pushed through by Mr. Ripon, who spoke in favour of the Bill of 1867 and its key clause on railway franchises.

In conclusion, Mr. Ripon calls the solution of a monopoly “absolutely remunerative; the carriage is acceptable; and the system, a profitable”. That was way before PPP, common at the time, was fully developed and reformed.

His 19th-century gem on the impact of franchising on train journeys is well worth a read. “Rails have their exclusive use,” he wrote “provided that they are of the most excellent quality and of the best possible workmanship.” But British Rail’s chief operating officer, Mr. Ripon’s own brother, complained that the horses were dirty. “Just think of the expensive manure they could use if they should run out of the East India Company buses.”

It will be interesting to see the route taken by the Government to restore commuters to London rail travel after the latest franchise comes to an end. How many of the 42 Million Abroad passengers living in London at the moment will be willing to continue paying ticket price in the name of the Great British Railways in a business that last year lost a million passengers?

The Government must spend all it can, as is compulsory, to keep the Great British Railways alive, if the public services are to survive and thrive.

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