Friday, 19 July 2013

If it's worth privatising, surely it's worth keeping

DON’T you love travelling by train? There’s a reality to it that no other form of transport can match.

There’s no jet-lag to cope with, none of the culture (and climate) shock that can come with stepping out after even just a few uncomfortable hours in a plane.
And while car travel has its advantages – mostly the freedom to go when and where you want – you can find yourself insulated from the world around you. Closed off in a bubble with no real contact with other people (except to swear at them as they overtake, pull out in front of you or hog the middle lane).
On a train you’re both in the landscape and among the people. Of course it’s much the most environmentally-friendly way of crossing distances you couldn’t easily walk or cycle.
And despite the recent ghastly high-speed crash in France, it’s still the safest way to travel. That’s why we hear about such events – because they’re rare.
I’ve had some fascinating encounters on trains with people I would never otherwise have met. Great journeys across France, Spain, Italy, Holland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania.
And every time it’s been a depressing comedown to return home to this land where the trains are less roomy, less comfortable, less smooth, less reliable. And so much more expensive.
Of course, in Europe the railways mostly continue to be run efficiently as state concerns. A service run by the people for the people.
Here there is little joined-up thinking between companies that compete for temporary contracts to run trains on lines owned and maintained (or not) by another company.
The whole system is geared to short-term profit, not long-term service.
You can’t really blame the companies concerned. With rapid returns required, long-term investment is hardly encouraged.
In this climate it’s heartening to see the rise of a pressure group calling itself Bring Back British Rail. Less so to realise how little chance they have of getting their wish.
On their website they explain: “We are the collective voice of disgruntled rail passengers and disheartened train employees, demanding a re-unified national rail network run for people not profit.
“Founded in 2009, Bring Back British Rail strives to popularise the commonsense idea of re-nationalising the ludicrously over-priced and over-complicated railway system, which the people of Britain have been left with as the result of privatisation in the ’90s.”
How long, I wonder, before we see an equally well-intentioned – and equally failure-doomed – movement to Bring Back Royal Mail?
Even Margaret Thatcher, who sparked the headlong dash to flog off Britain’s assets, baulked at what she called “privatisation of the Queen’s head”.
Not so her 21st-century successors, now intent on hawking off the postal service to the highest bidder.
Which, if experience with water, electricity – and the railways – is anything to go by, will probably end up eventually back in national ownership. It just won’t be this nation that owns it.
What I can’t understand is why, if there’s any company that thinks the Royal Mail is worth having, it isn’t worth keeping.
If it can be run profitably for shareholders, why not for the Treasury?
According to business secretary Vince Cable, “the public will always want to invest in schools and hospitals” ahead of the postal service.
That suggests it’s a drain on resources. If so, who would want to buy it?
If it were run efficiently if could make money to help fund those schools and hospitals. Not to put cash in a few private pockets.

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