Peter Jones

Vitruvius on rail franchising

Text settings

Ever since nationalisation was invented in the 19th century, private franchising (e.g. the West Coast Main Line) has raised the question: why should private business profit from a public service which the state ‘should’ run for all? Ancients, obviously, never gave it a second thought.

When Romans needed roads and aqueducts built, armies serviced, mines worked etc., they contracted the work out, as they did too with collecting provincial taxes. This always meant trouble. Whatever system was used — from private consortia (publicani) buying the right to collect taxes or local bigwigs collecting them under the eye of the Roman financial officer — there were always complaints about unfairness and extortion.

There were the usual problems with contracted work, too. The famous Roman architect Vitruvius launched an attack on inaccurate building estimates, proposing a Greek solution which has much to commend it today:

‘In the celebrated and spacious Greek city of Ephesus, there is said to be an ancient law established by the forefathers, harsh in its requirements but by no means partial in its justice. For an architect, when he has received the commission for some public work, promises in advance what the cost is to be. Once this estimate has been turned over to the officials, the state has a right to a hold over his property until the work is completed.

‘Then, when it is finished, if the expenses correspond to the estimate, he is awarded special decrees and honours. If it has exceeded the estimate by no more than one-quarter of the total, the difference is supplied by the public treasury, and he is not obliged to pay any penalty.

‘If, on the other hand, more than a quarter has been consumed by the project, the money is taken from his own assets to make up the difference. If only the immortal gods had made it so that this law had also been adopted by the Roman people, not only for public buildings but also for private ones!’

Hear, hear! When state projects fail, of course, we end up footing the bill; but when private contractors fail, we often do as well.