The West Coast Main Line franchise fiasco has dealt a calamitous, credibility–destroying blow to the privatised rail service in Britain.
The worst aspect of this story of incompetence and blame shifting has been the political cowardice. It was pathetic to watch the Government reacting to the scandal like a bunch of self-serving, out of touch, bombastic buffers hitting the buffers.
Worst of all was the attempt to pile all the blame onto a trio of senior civil servants. These civil servants may well have made serious errors but until recently there was a fine tradition in British politics that the politician, not the civil servant, took responsibility for any major errors within a particular department.
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There was decency, a sense of honour, in this. Not now. Tory ministers have been falling over themselves in their haste to evade blame and scapegoat their civil servants. There is still time at the Tory conference for an eloquent, sincere apology; but I doubt if it will be forthcoming.
Meanwhile there must be serious concern as to whether the Department of Transport can continue to award franchises. Three were due to be awarded next year, and four more – including that of ScotRail – come up for renewal in 2014. Despite Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin's promise yesterday to crack on with it, there are now major doubts about the feasibility of HS2, the £35 billion (and counting) project to create a new high-speed line from London to the English Midlands (and eventually right on to Glasgow).
I find all this tragic, for I genuinely believe the privatisation of the national railway system has been a success, albeit a patchy one. I know I'm unusual in claiming this, but about 30 years ago I was travelling 20,000 miles a year by rail, mainly commuting but also making quite frequent long distance journeys. Train travel then was a non-stop nightmare. Well, non-stop is the wrong word, for there was actually a great deal of stopping, rarely at stations.
Punctuality and reliability were derisory. The rolling stock was frequently filthy. There were countless industrial disputes. Some trains were seriously overcrowded; others ran long distances with coach after coach virtually empty. Railways on the continent offered an embarrassingly superior service.
All that has changed, and how. Over the past two years I have made several train journeys in Italy, France, Belgium and Luxembourg. The service has been mediocre – and sometimes surprisingly expensive. I have before me as I write this a second-class ticket for an off-peak daytime train from Lille Flandres station to Paris Nord – a journey that takes one hour exactly. The ticket cost 58 euros. The cost of the average rail journey per mile in France is actually pretty similar to what it is in the UK – just over 19p – but there are obviously considerable regional variations. Train travel tends to be dearer in Germany, and a little cheaper in Italy.
The experience in major continental stations is often inferior to that provided here. I'd suggest that Rome Termini and the Gare du Nord, Paris, provide a service that is barely adequate. Indeed the contrast between the Gare du Nord and St Pancras could hardly be greater, with the London station winning on every count.
Since privatisation the amount of freight moved by rail has increased, and overall safety has improved. These are clear plusses.
But in Scotland I accept the post-privatisation verdict can be summed up as "could do better". The Glasgow–Edinburgh service (still, I'm told, the only rail line in Europe on which commuters between two major cities travel in more or less equal numbers each way at the same time) has improved immeasurably. This is not necessarily the case elsewhere north of the Border.
Too many long-distance Scottish routes are serviced by trains that were clearly designed for short distance travel. This is something that will have to be dealt with in the awarding of the next Scottish franchise, but then, as I've suggested, the whole franchise-awarding processes in now mired in chaos.