Railway System Review, and Renationalisation – Why Bother?

Last week Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, announced a review of the privatised rail system. That follows the recent problems with new timetables where the regulator concluded that “nobody took charge”. Today John McDonnell, the Labour Party’s shadow chancellor said that he could renationalise the railways within five years if Labour wins the next election – it’s already a manifesto commitment. Perhaps he thinks he can solve the railway’s problems by doing so but this writer suggests the problem is technology rather than management, although cost also comes into the equation.

The basic problem is that the railways are built on inflexible and expensive old technology. There has never been a “timetable” problem on the roads because there are no fixed timetables – folks just do their own thing and travel when they want to do so.

Consider the rail signalling system – an enormously expensive infrastructure to ensure trains don’t run into each other and to give signals to train drivers. We do of course have a similar system at junctions on roads – they are called traffic lights. But they operate automatically and are relatively cheap. Most are not even linked in a network as train signals are required to be.

Trains run on tracks so they are extremely vulnerable to breakdowns of trains and damage to tracks – even snow, ice or leaves on the line cause disruption – who ever heard of road vehicles being delayed by leaves? A minor problem on a train track, often to signals, can quickly cause the whole line or network to come to a halt. Failing traffic signals on roads typically cause only slight delays and vehicles can drive around any broken-down cars or lorries.

The cost of changes to a rail line are simply enormous, and the cost of building them also. For example, the latest estimate for HS2 – the line from London to Birmingham is more than £80 billion. The original M1 was completed in 1999 at a cost of £26 million. Even allowing for inflation, and some widening and upgrading since then the total cost is probably less than £1 billion.

Changes to railway lines can be enormously expensive. For example, the cost of rebuilding London Bridge station to accommodate more trains was about £1 billion. These astronomic figures simply do not arise when motorways are revised or new service stations constructed.

Why invest more in a railway network when roads are cheaper to build and maintain, and a lot more flexible in use? At present the railways have to be massively subsidised by the Government out of taxation – about £4 billion per annum according to Wikipedia, or about 7.5p per mile of every train journey you take according to the BBC. Meanwhile road transport more than pays for itself and contributes billions to general taxation in addition from taxes on vehicle users.

So here’s a suggestion: scrap using this old technology for transport and invest more in roads. Let the railways shrink in size to where they are justifiable, or let them disappear as trams did for similar reasons – inflexible and expensive in comparison with buses.

No need to renationalise them at great expense. Spend the money instead on building a decent road network which is certainly not what we have at present.

Do you think that railways are more environmentally friendly? Electric trains may be but with electric road vehicles now becoming commonplace, that justification will no longer apply in a few years’ time, if not already.

Just like some people love old transport modes – just think canals and steam trains – the attachment to old technology in transport is simply irrational as well as being very expensive. Road vehicles take you from door-to-door at lower cost, with no “changing trains” or waiting for the next one to arrive. No disruption caused by striking guards or drivers as London commuters have seen so frequently.

In summary building and managing a road network is cheaper and simpler. It just needs a change of mindset to see the advantages of road over rail. But John McDonnell wants to take us back to 1948 when the railways were last nationalised. Better to invest in the roads than the railways.

It has been suggested that John McDonnell is a Marxist but at times he has denied it. Those not aware of the impact of Marxism on political thought would do well to read a book I recently perused which covered the impact of the Bolsheviks in post-revolutionary Russia circa 1919. In Tashkent they nationalised all pianos as owning a piano was considered “bourgeois”. They were confiscated and given to schools. One man who had his piano nationalised lost his temper and broke up the piano with an axe. He was taken to goal and then shot (from the book Mission to Tashkent by Col. F.M. Bailey).

Sometimes history can be very revealing. The same mentality that wishes to spend money on public transport such as railways as opposed to private transport systems shows the same defects.

Roger Lawson

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Drivers_London

Press Release: Chancellor’s Tax Policies Are Major Blow To Car Industry

Today’s new car registration figures show that last year’s changes to Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) have now led to a whole year of declining new car registrations. The decline started on the day the new regime that Chancellor Osborne designed, and Hammond implemented, kicked in. The ABD calls on Chancellor Philip Hammond to immediately address the issue before further harm is done. The October budget will be too late.

ABD spokesman Nigel Humphries explains: “Due to the confusion created by the shambolic new tax regime, rather than trading in their existing cars, usually economical diesels with cheap or free VED, drivers are choosing to hang on to their old car. This is having a disastrous effect on new car sales. Why would you buy a new car when a) The road tax will likely be higher; b) If buying a diesel, there is no guarantee that local authorities will not in future introduce all manner of charges for parking or even entering towns; and c) If buying a petrol then economy will be poorer than your existing diesel?”

The ABD calls for four immediate changes in the VED regime to reinstate confidence and fairness in the market:

1. The government must announce with immediate effect that no local authority will be allowed to impose discriminatory charges on any type of car or motorcycle for parking or entering a zone based upon type of motive power. Those that have already, including the London Mayor, must scrap them.

2. The zero VED band and sliding scale should be reintroduced for low emission new cars.

3. VED should be capped at £300 pa for all cars over three years old, ending the anomoly where certain cars sold between 2005 and 2018 pay up to £535. This will help the lower income driver. When newer models with equivalent CO2 figures only pay £140 after the first three years £500+ cannot be justified.

4. New electric cars should pay VED of £500 and the gift of £4,500 from the taxpayer to buyers should be scrapped. It is grossly unfair on other drivers that those who can afford expensive new electric cars cars pay nothing at all to use the roads whilst others pay thousands in fuel duties and VED.  EVs cause as much congestion and wear to the system as any other car.  £500 is still substantially less than most other drivers pay (10,000 miles pa 40mpg car pays around £1,100 fuel tax and VED) and is more than sufficient reward for their green credentials.