First published in Shifiting Grounds: 24th August 2012
Much like the NHS, the health of the railways is one of the few aspects of British life that can draw passionate support from across the political spectrum. Engrained in British social culture, the railways brought the fruits of the industrial revolution to the nation and inspired successive generations of young enthusiasts to take to the railway bridges to spot their favourite engines. Apart from their status as a potent link to our past, rail travel remains a practical necessity for thousands of commuters up and down the country.
It is not surprising therefore, that the recent announcement of massive fair increases has led a chorus of alarmed voices calling for greater scrutiny of franchises, and even re-nationalisation. The strongest of which comes from Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail, who claimed the Coalition would be committing ‘electoral suicide’ if they allowed the fare increases to stand. Indeed, recently collected data by the Campaign for Better Transport demonstrates that a high proportion of marginal seats exist along commuter lines into London.
Newspaper columnists have long been united in their belief that rail privatisation was a grave error. Peter Hitchens once remarked that railways had required a ‘special spirit’ to make them work, and the private sphere does not nurture this spirit. “Privatisation, with its false promises, its so-called improvements which always seem to mean fewer seats on slower trains, its get-rich-quick managers and its elaborate system for buck-passing, has finally killed it [the spirit].”
In 2008, when Jon Cruddas put forward a proposal for re-nationalisation when he stood for deputy leadership of the Labour Party, Times columnist Rod Liddell mourned eight years of fare increases, and a missed opportunity by Labour. “We all remember the bad old days but they were better than today’s mess of delays, soaring fares and higher subsidies. It is either depressing or hilarious…to mull over the fact that the privatised rail network soaks up almost three times as much taxpayers’ money in subsidies than…British Rail.”