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Richard Branson’s anger that his Virgin Group has lost the franchise to run trains on the West Coast Main Line is quite justified. During the fifteen years since Virgin has been running services from London Euston to Birmingham, the North West and Scotland, great advances have been made, particularly with the introduction of new tilting Pendolino trains, which have considerably reduced journey times over this route.
However, his anger should have been directed at the crazy franchise system itself. Britain is the country which gave railways to the world and from the early 19th century through to 1948, railway building and operation, rolling stock construction and maintenance was entirely a private sector function. Apart from the duration of the two world wars when the rail network was placed under government control, the state’s role was confined to the granting of permission to construct any new stretch of railway line, plus passenger and staff safety issues.
The railways were in a run-down state after World War II, but they could have remained in private hands if short-term reconstruction loans had been provided. Instead, Clement Attlee’s socialist government nationalised them, along with a number of other industries. So was born British Rail, remembered for its sandwiches, union militancy and its memorable slogan “We’re getting there”.
The BR years did see some successes, notably the introduction of the 125 mph High Speed Train in 1977, but it can hardly be regarded as a vindication of the socialist principle of state ownership. Mrs Thatcher hesitated to privatise the rail network, but John Major’s government went ahead in the 1990s, devising one of the most complicated structures imaginable, which has benefitted lawyers, accountants and shareholders of the rolling stock leasing companies, but not the travelling public, as fares have skyrocketed. This muddle is sometimes blamed on the EU, but as I pointed out in my paper for the Bruges Group, On the Wrong Track, the UK undertook the separation of trains from track before the EU told it to, and the legislation which has given us the franchise system originated in Westminster, not Brussels or Strasbourg.
The Franchise system discourages long-term planning, and costs companies vast sums of money in the preparation of bids. Virgin spent almost £14 million on its bid for the West Coast Franchise, and had it won it, would have then had to pay the government for the privilege of running the trains. This is madness. Why should the government assume this role of arbiter? Is this a legitimate function of the state? Hardly. Our railway network coped perfectly well for nearly 150 years without government interference, and there is no reason why it could not do so again in the 21st century.
Of course, with the EU now interfering with our transport system, a re-think about how best to run our railways will have to wait until we regain our independence. When we are a free country again, however, proper private companies, such as those in existence before 1948, who owned and maintained their own track as well as operating trains, should be left to run our railways without government interference.
John Petley is editor of Freedom Today.
- Freedom in the City on 22nd May with JP Floru on May 22, 2013 12:30 pm
- The Freedom Association’s Magna Carta Pimms and Politics Cruise on June 15, 2013 12:30 pm
- Conservative Renewal Conference on September 14, 2013
- The Freedom Zone on September 30, 2013
- The Freedom Zone on October 1, 2013
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