The shambles that is Network Rail continues to blight our lives.
City A.M. readers may have experienced the cancellation of many services into Waterloo on Monday, due to engineering works overrunning. Even the best-laid plans can go astray. But this week was not just a one-off event. It seems to be a permanent feature of life under Network Rail.
The old Eurostar platforms at Waterloo are being redeveloped for use by regular trains. The work seems to have been going on since the Norman Conquest, and still only one platform is in operation.
And disruption is not confined to Waterloo. Back in May, the introduction of new timetables across the UK’s rail network created chaos.
On 27 July, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) wrote to Network Rail and said, according to its website: “we had concluded that Network Rail are in breach of the timetabling conditions in its network licence”.
What could the regulator do about the breach? First, the ORR could improve its grammar and decide whether Network Rail is plural (“are”) or singular (“its”). But this aside, the answer is: not much. Because Network Rail is a nationalised industry.
You might hope that the train operating companies, with their private sector dynamism and innovation, should be able to overcome these challenges. But the basic problem is that many of the operating franchises are now run by foreign state-backed companies.
Their names may not be on the side of the trains themselves, and the precise pattern of ownership is often complex. But Deutsche Bahn, in which the German government is the majority shareholder, owns the outfits which run franchises such as CrossCountry. The French state operated company SNCF lies behind franchises like the Gatwick Express. Abellio, run by the state-owned Netherlands Rail, operates the Greater Anglia franchises.
Britain’s railways have evolved into a system which is run and maintained by state-owned companies. There is relatively little genuine private sector involvement.
Initially, rail privatisation was a great success. The peak number of passenger journeys made each year was some 1.1bn in the mid-1950s. This fell to 750m in the 1990s. Then, after privatisation began, there was a dramatic reversal, as the new private companies paid more attention to consumers. Journey numbers started to rise, passing the one billion mark in 2003, to the current level of 1.7bn.
However, with the increasing involvement of companies which are ultimately backed by the taxpayer, whether British or foreign, interest in the wellbeing of rail users – the consumers – has declined.
Many of our major routes, whether commuter or long distance, are operating close to full capacity. There is less incentive either to treat people well or to attract more passengers.
The Labour party routinely calls for the nationalisation of the railways. But to all intents and purposes, they have effectively become nationalised already.
As such, the industry offers not just a glimpse, but a full-length feature film on what life would be like in general under a government led by Jeremy Corbyn – cancelled trains to Waterloo are just the start.