Saturday, October 26, 2013

From today's Herald.

Just recently, I took a round-trip train ride from the east Borders to London and back. For reasons involving my own inability to plan anything, it was not even half as simple as it sounds. It was interesting, though.
            Anyone who means to go from Berwick and finds himself watching sheep being herded across the track at Barrhill on a fine morning in South Ayrshire probably deserves no sympathy. But for preposterously complicated reasons I had to get from the Borders to London’s National Portrait Gallery, then to Wigtown’s book festival, then to Glasgow, then home. As far as railways go, it was an education.
            Leave aside the fact that much of Britain is badly served. Old halts that once supported communities are long gone. In the Borders, we know this as well as anyone. In our context, all the fine talk of HS2, far less the gigantic sums involved, can sound faintly amusing. The idea that trains are supposed to connect people is as risible here as it is in Galloway.
            But we have the East Coast main line. I see its trains most days. The station at Berwick is a fine, venerable and well-run place. What I know from my enforced investigations of the network from the south to the Central Belt is that the line served is one of the better railway experiences in this country. The coalition government is therefore determined to degrade a national asset.
            “Therefore” should not be immediately obvious. Who would take a well-run line that by the year’s end will have returned £800 million to the Treasury since 2009 and return it to a private sector that has twice failed to do the job? As it happens, the same people who sold an increasingly profitable Royal Mail for £3.3 billion when even the banks came up with valuations ranging from £6.9 billion to £9.95 billion.
            That scandal is still unravelling. The excuses of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, thin enough to begin with, are barely transparent now. It is one thing to advance the fire-sale justification, to claim that a country “on the road to recovery” still needs cash for its Exchequer with all possible speed. But the present wave of privatisations shows a willingness to sell at a loss that is beyond eager. Some of the rules involving privatisation and pricing might be involved.
            As has been evident in the Grangemouth scandal, issues of national infrastructure are also at stake. In an important sense, the coalition, Lib Dem as well as Tory, seems not to care about things on which Britain depends. Far from being a prize for a shareholders’ democracy, Royal Mail is already part-owned (5.8%) by a hedge fund called TCI. Their reputation for being “aggressive” in squeezing assets has been well-earned. Land and property will be the prize.
            As with Royal Mail, there is no public demand whatever for government to take another crack at the privatisation of East Coast. Well-supported petitions against the idea have been floating around. There is a need for investment in some dodgy overhead power lines, an ancient legacy of state neglect, but this survivor of a recent expedition around the network, east and west, says that the line is far better than most. Yet it will be sold.
            Ministers have even had the gall, or the witlessness, to use the word “competition”. With what? With whom? Those politicians also proclaim an ambition to “revitalise” a service that has twice failed in private hands. The abuse of language is familiar, but still dispiriting. East Coast has already been revitalised. It works. It keeps time. It is comfortable. The staff are exemplary. It makes a profit. So what’s the thinking? Let’s take that train set and scatter it, once again?
            Labour, to its credit, has promised to “consider” re-nationalisation if the coalition proceeds. That counts as a start. While ministers promise to “transform the passenger experience” – spare me – rational thinking is required. Why should any part of the proceeds of a public utility that works well be devoted to dividends? Reforms, if required, should not be placed under that kind of duress.
            As with Royal Mail, dark thoughts over the motivations of those involved are revived. The purblind belief, the blind faith, that private is always best is still strong in the London political world. Even when the sums fail to add up, as they have twice failed with the East Coast line, privatisation is confused with realism. But when you throw in a bit of political reality – a public that wants rail in public hands – the ideological patter would shame a used-care salesman.
            The French might well supply your electricity. You get your petrol at the behest of a billionaire on his wee yacht in the south of France. The Chinese will probably own your ports and airports before long, with an invitation to nestle their never-corrupt banks in the City of London. Your Royal Mail is being carved up by hedge funds and foreign bankers as I write. The fate of your railways will depend on anyone who fancies a punt and a subsidy.
            There is, I grant, a paradox in all of this. Are we not supposed to applaud all those Scottish and British firms capable of buying assets abroad? Isn’t this what it means to be a trading nation? That’s the general idea. But the consequences of globalisation have not been thought through, even to a limited degree, where the things on which a country depends are concerned. It is less a question of petty nationalism than of national security, social and economic.
            But London’s ministers don’t care. They don’t think about the country they represent in those terms. As though to stick rank symbolism under ever nose, they can see nothing wrong with an East Coast line on which third-class tickets could be reintroduced. That should do something, perhaps, for the “passenger experience”, if precious little for the quality of a passenger’s life.
            The quality of service declines, but prices and profits increase. There is no one who is not now familiar with that experience. Equally, as the power companies have been demonstrating with a certain aplomb, governments have a strictly-limited control over large private utilities. When the administrations in question fail even to grasp what’s at stake, the public becomes a cash crop. Rail commuters know all about that.
            After my witless odyssey it was a relief to step on the East Coast train in Waverley station. Call me sentimental, but I have known that line for a long time. As the Lothians and the Borders went beneath the wheels it felt as though more than countryside was slipping away. If the service had been late or the carriage foul, I might have grumbled too. But on a clear autumn day it was the best trip of the journey. Now even the memory is for sale.
            If we’re lucky, Europeans who run excellent railways of their own might want to take a crack at operating the service. Given Britain’s history with trains, a few of them might even see the irony. But I’m not travelling third-class for anybody, least of all for this government.

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