Martin Vander Weyer Martin Vander Weyer

Any other business | 28 May 2011

Another rail report chugs past like an empty freight train bound for the sidings

Another rail report chugs past like an empty freight train bound for the sidings

Sir Roy McNulty’s report on the state of Britain’s railways chugged by last week like one of those unmarked freight trains that sometimes pass through stations. ‘Stand well back from the platform,’ says the announcer, making us wonder whether the wagons are full of explosives. But such is the inefficiency of our rail system that they’re more likely to be being shunted empty from one siding to another — which is what will happen to McNulty’s ‘Rail Value For Money Study’ if unions and other vested interests have their way.

McNulty found that many European train services are 40 per cent cheaper to operate than ours, and that it ought to be possible to find £1 billion a year in efficiency savings by 2019. But meanwhile, as trains become increasingly overcrowded, fares will continue rising at 3 per cent above inflation. The roots of this unsatisfactory state of affairs are plain to see.

The fragmented, Treasury-designed privatisation scheme pushed through by John Major’s government built in excessive costs and made it tough for franchisees to generate decent returns, discouraging long-term investment. The health-and-safety regime became increasingly burdensome after the Hatfield crash in 2000, but everyone is so afraid of being sued or prosecuted that no one dares rein it back. And Bob Crow of the RMT union thinks he’s living in an episode of Life on Mars set in 1973. Against that background, don’t expect much from a new top-level working group, formed in response to the McNulty report, which aims to ‘lead the industry forward in delivering a higher performing, more cost effective and sustainable railway network’.

But here’s one issue they could tackle immediately. Fares are now so exorbitant, ticket restrictions so complex, automated barriers so ineffectual and passengers so short-fused that rail companies routinely impede access to trains with phalanxes of aggressive ‘revenue protection’ officials.

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