Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“I’m a commuter, get me out of here!”

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Overcrowded, overpriced and underserviced: conditions on our trains are igniting increasing anger and protest among passengers around the country. But are services really that bad? We took a ride on seven commuter trips.

Tuesday February 6, 2007
The Guardian

This is the article that people who advocate privatisation should read. Britain’s railways were privatised some years after I left Britain, but the idea had been kicking around for a while. And the civil servants in the Department of Transport when I was there were nearly all appalled by the idea – especially the experts in Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate, who predicted, with devastating accuracy, that it would kill people. Just look at the long line of links at the end of the Guardian article to the enquiries into “accidents” which resulted from divided responsibility and the “value for money” approach – which means maximising the return for shareholders.

British Rail was by no means perfect, but by the time it was broken up had been running better than it had in its earlier forms, and was performing far better than the current arrangement in terms of how much support it needed from taxpayers and how effectively it spent that money. Railtrack, the company set up to look after the infrastructure went bust, and effectively control of the infrastructure has now moved back to the state – with the Department for Transport running the show, after the Strategic Rail Authority was scrapped. But DfT seems to have proved the old adage that ministries should not run things. Nationalised industries were always run by what in Canada are known as “Crown Corporations” and ministries provided oversight and policy direction, but then stood back. Because political interference in priorities and making it up as you go along simply won’t do when the public depends on the service.

I follow the happenings in railways much closer than I do on Health, but the story there is depressingly similar, with P3s for hospitals having a particularly depressing record of cost overruns and poor service. And yet our politicians in BC seem to think that privatisation is still a magic wand which will transform everything that is wrong with the public sector into sweetness and light. Not on the track record of Britain it won’t.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 6, 2007 at 8:37 am

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