miss_s_b: (Default)
[personal profile] miss_s_b
So there are a bunch of Labour PPCs and assorted others today doing a coordinated clamour for renationalisation of the railways. This is a superficially attractive idea, and one that up until recently I might have agreed with myself, so I want to go into why I now believe it would be bloody stupid.

The way that privatisation was done was a cock up. You'll get no argument from me on that. The current franchise system for Train Operating Companies (hereinafter TOCs) is the worst of both worlds. Also, I have no issues with the fact that after the collapse of Railtrack, the infrastructure was basically brought back under state control in the guise of Network Rail. Land and track beds are a natural monopoly, and thus state control makes sense**. The actual rolling stock, though? Why does that have to be a monopoly? It doesn't.

The reason people still feel like it does is because of the afore-mentioned stupid franchise system, which means we basically have several regional monopolies rather than one national one***. We have competition on the railways in the same way we have competition for huge government contracts in other areas, and it's always the same usual suspects who bid for contracts because they are the only ones who can, and we end up with a cartel who fleece both the consumer at the ticket barrier and the taxpayer on the subsidies****.

In the few cases where some little company has managed to get an Open Access Rail contract, you can see how TOCs' contracts might work under a properly Liberal system. The example local to me is Grand Central, who run a service from various West Yorkshire stations to King's Cross. Their trains are beautiful, their service makes sense, and their prices are great. Contrast this with the Byzantine and delapidated system run by Northern Rail (my local franchise holder), or BR when the railways were still under state control, and you start to see what I'm driving at.

Train services aren't shit because they were privatised, they were shit under BR too. Train services are shit because they weren't privatised enough. You can't have proper competition under a franchise system. If there was proper competition there would be room for lots more companies like Grand Central to bid for (say) one or two slots on the timetable, start small, and build up really great services, instead of the monolithic state-in-all-but-name services we have now. There would be room for community-run and co-op run services to start up and (hopefully) flourish. Under the current system there's no way that can happen.

What is it that convinced me that all this is true? The NHS. NHS England operates under a much more liberal market structure than NHS Scotland, NHS Northern Ireland, or NHS Wales. This is consistently painted as a Bad Thing by many groups on the left. And yet, I am a Liberal, and I don't care what system of ownership something has on idealogical grounds, I care what works to deliver the best outcomes for people. On pretty much every measure - from life expectancy to waiting times - NHS England outperforms the other three. Proper liberalisation of the market WORKS, and that is why I am for it in the case of the railways.

In political terms, of course, the problem with this is that renationalisation makes some superficial sense. The current system is shit, does cost us more in subsidies and buggering about than the nationalised system did, and is in urgent need of reform. I actually think that in terms of winning votes, the Labour party might be onto something, because one of the types of person this will appeal to is the type of politically illiterate pub bore who has an opinion on everything, doesn't care that many of his opinions are mutually contradictory, and doesn't think about the consequences of what would happen if his ideas all came to pass. This type of person will look at the current system, see it's shit, shrug and say "well, renationalise the railways. That'll solve it." and move on to talking about how lazy immigrants who came over here to claim benefits have stolen his job by working more hours than him.

This is the type of voter that Labour are currently haemmoraging in droves to UKIP*****, so appealing to them is a good survival tactic for them. The type of person who cheers when Labour think of yet another thing they are going to fund with the bankers' bonus tax which they currently plan to spend many times over.

Of course I have no doubt that were renationalisation to make it into the Labour manifesto it wouldn't actually happen were they to get in******, but that won't really matter in electoral terms. There are a lot more reactionary pub bores than there are people who actually pay attention to what works. The problem for Lib Dems is: how do we package sensible policies in a way that makes sense to the reactionary pub bore? This, I think, is a problem which I would make a LOT of money if I could solve...

*with a little help from [personal profile] matgb and Alisdair, with whom I regularly have discussions about political stuff, both online and off.
**similarly with roads, etc.
***The reason we have it is because John Major had romantic notions about the golden age of rail and wanted to bring back GWR etc. and went about it in a cack-handed way. I have a soft spot for Major, and think he is harshly judged as a PM, but he really did make an arse of privatising the railways.
****just like in the arena of justice and security it's always G4S and Serco who end up with government contracts because of the ridiculous preffered bidder system and the size of the contracts being drawn up, but that's a blog post for another day.
*****whose entire policy platform is designed in this reactionary way - "X is a problem. How do we solve X? Y might work." with no consideration of the fact that Y doesn't work with any of the other policies they propose, and indeed, actively works against some of them... -_-"
******Don't even get me started on the rank hypocrisy of a party which introduced tuition fees against a manifesto promise that they wouldn't, and then raised them against a manifesto promise that they wouldn't attacking US on the fact that we kept tuition fees lower than they would have been under either Labour OR Tories governing alone... -_-"

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 12:36 pm (UTC)
ext_51145: (Default)
From: [identity profile] andrewhickey.info
Actually, one of the things I like about Clegg (yes, there are some) is that he's very, very good at packaging sensible policies to appeal to reactionary pub bores.
The problem is actually packaging sensible policies to appeal to reactionary pub bores *without putting off sensible people*. Whenever the leadership start talking about "ordinary, hardworking, families", "alarm clock Britain" and the rest of that nonsense, all the instinctive liberals start running screaming, and that goes double for those of us who those phrases don't describe.

The other thing is that those people tend to react more to personalities than to policies. They want someone who's "like them", "a good bloke you could have a pint with" -- in other words, a loud, boorish, alcoholic, white man aged around fifty, preferably with a working-class accent, but the right kind of posh is OK too. So long as he doesn't give the impression of being serious-minded or of thinking himself cleverer than anyone else.

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 07:23 pm (UTC)
sir_guinglain: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sir_guinglain
Not sure about 'not privatised enough'; privatised in a way owing much to Whitehall prejudice and designed to squeeze money out of what was still thought to be a declining asset, yes. From what I have read, the management contract and profit-sharing model used by Transport for London in running London Overground has been more successful than most of the franchises, though there is something to be said for the long-term franchise model adopted for Chiltern.
Edited Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 07:24 pm (UTC)

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:04 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
Anybody who knows the faintest thing about transport will tell you that pure free-market competition for public transport is a catastrophic idea.

The competition for railways is air and private cars.

If there umpteen railway companies operating services on the same line, what happens when you miss your train and no other company will accept your ticket?

What happens to off-peak travel? Nobody will want to operate services that aren't full, so say goodbye to services outside rush hours. Then say goodbye to rail services in general, because those won't pay the overheads to keep a system running.

What happens when there are delays or incidents will be worse than it is now. Every incident will lead to every company suing Network Rail because they think their train should have been given priority.

Running railways needs HUGE investment. Your scrappy little Grand Central? It's a subsidiary of Arriva.

If you want a privatised railway that works, the only option is along the lines of the way various local regions elsewhere in Europe run their buses and occasionally their rail services. Companies compete for a short-term contract to run what trains/buses city or regional government tell them to run, and if they don't live up to the contract it's over.

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:17 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
That problem exists for long-distance journeys which most people only take occasionally. If they take them truly regularly they have season tickets which are more flexible. Do you want to extend that problem to people's daily journeys to work and back?

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:31 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
Sorry, that was a bit of a diversion to talk about the current situation. Do you expect that in a totally free-market, companies would accept each others' season tickets?

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:23 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Do you understand the term "opportunity cost"?

Off-Peak services will continue to run because it does not benefit the operator of the trains at all if the train is not in use. If we assume the underlying assumption of your premise is true - that the cost of ownership (or leasing) a train is entirely covered by the income from running a peak service, then why would an operator not run off-peak services? They have the trains, the staff and the opportunity - the cost will be close to nil, for a profit well above that!

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:35 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
No, what I'm saying is that even the cost of running peak hour services isn't covered by the income, and the peak hour services are the ones that might most plausibly make money.

Date: Monday, May 5th, 2014 12:00 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
That's a ridiculous statement. If they don't make money on the peaks, then how (given your presumption that they wouldn't run trains off peak) would they run a service at all?

Your argument completely ignores the fact that what makes the franchise TOCs unprofitable is the cost of securing the franchise itself.

Date: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014 07:33 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
That is actually ridiculous, peak trains in many areas are marginal, season tickets cost less than one off journeys meaning that per passenger income is decreased, plus here is the killer that is often not appreciated, much of the rolling stock sits empty in a siding all day that is needed for peak demand only, as such you have a £2m asset sat doing two journeys a day.

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:16 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
Another important point: railways are, in very important ways, not roads. Trains cannot overtake each other, they can't get past one another if they break down, and their braking distances are not good enough to allow them to be driven safely at any useful speed on line-of-sight. Trains can only operate safely and effectively if someone is actually assigning route slots and working out how they fit together. How do you think that will work with an arbitrarily large number of separate private companies all trying to do exactly what is most profitable.

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:32 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
You're missing my point. How will the state fairly arbitrate between large numbers of companies who all want to operate trains at the most profitable time? And how much time and money will that cost?

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:42 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
What you said is "If there was proper competition there would be room for lots more companies like Grand Central to bid for (say) one or two slots on the timetable, start small, and build up really great services, instead of the monolithic state-in-all-but-name services we have now.".

What I am trying to explain is that even THAT is too close to "total anarchy" to have any chance of working on the railways.

Date: Sunday, May 4th, 2014 11:42 pm (UTC)
londonkds: (Default)
From: [personal profile] londonkds
Without making the system of regulation even more complex, unwieldy, and impossibly conflict-ridden than the current situation.

Date: Monday, May 5th, 2014 11:46 am (UTC)
momentsmusicaux: (Default)
From: [personal profile] momentsmusicaux
So, as a consumer, I would notice that Grand Central provide a better service for a better price, and... rearrange my timetable to travel at the times they run their trains on the line? Move to a town that they serve?

Date: Monday, May 5th, 2014 05:47 pm (UTC)
daweaver:   (pluralism)
From: [personal profile] daweaver
One of the few places where private rail has introduced competition is London to Birmingham. Chiltern Railways took a long franchise over the struggling Marylebone to Banbury commuter line, sunk large chunks of money into the infrastructure, and have converted it into a perfectly acceptable alternative to the traditional route via Watford.

This is further evidence for the original point: accidents of geography and history have allowed competition on this route, and the traveller - particularly the off-peak traveller - is the winner. I can decide on the day to go to London, and come away with change from £30. Two decades ago, adjusting for inflation, I'd have paid nearer £40.

Incidentally, I seem to recall that Labour had the opportunity to stop privatisation circa 1995, by saying that the next Labour government would not honour the promised subsidies, but declined to do so. I may be misunderstanding something.

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