Why we're still being taken for a ride by our train companies

There are too many "vested interests" to keep happy.

This week, two stories broke regarding the rail industry. On Tuesday it was the fact that fares are set to rise in January by up to 11 per cent on some journeys. That pushed the second to the very top of the news agenda: today's news that First Group has beaten off Virgin’s bid for the West Coast Main Line franchise.

The rise in fares was as predictable as death and taxes, and slightly more depressing than both. In real terms, they're now up a fifth since 1995. An annual ticket from London to Brighton now costs as much as a second-hand VW Golf, and that leaves change for some go-faster stripes for the seafront. Our trains are among the most expensive in Europe. Why?

If the train business doesn’t seem like any other industry, that’s because it’s not. Successive governments have never quite decided whether they’re a business or a social necessity – and they know full well there’s a decent case for the latter, because they’re clean, and thousands of people don’t die on them every year, which they do on the roads.

That means that under the current model you’ve got three competing obligations: quality (which takes investment), affordability and shareholder dividends. You can’t meet all three without money – so the burden for this was supposed to be split between the taxpayer and the passenger. That split used to be roughly 50/50, but the burden on passengers has crept up and up for the last 10 years towards 75 per cent passenger input.

You might say this could pose a few conflicts of interest, and you’d be completely understating the case. According to the Department for Transport the case for structural change has not been made. And this is true, assuming you discard countless industry experts, analysts and, um, the government’s own command paper on the subject.

It’s hard to know where to start. Fares can’t continue to rise at this rate, or the only people taking the train will be Lakshmi Mittal and at a push the Queen, assuming she can get an old person’s rail card. But the government hasn’t given any indication as to when the fares will stop going up. Given that it’s committed to £18bn of investment on goodies like Crossrail and Thameslink, not saying anything is probably a good idea, because it's going to be a decade at least.

But to be honest this is less of a problem than a point raised in the aforementioned command paper: the way the current system heaps the risks on taxpayers while giving fat payouts to shareholders, like the £88m pocketed last year by Stagecoach’s two founders (the polite euphemism in such reports is of “incompatible incentives”). This is due to the fact Labour (unchallenged by the other parties) brought in “revenue support” clauses, which guarantee taxpayers cover 80 per cent of shortfall between franchisees' forecasts and their actual revenues.

They’re not small, these sums of money. To pick an example entirely at random: despite paying out £340m to its shareholders last year, Stagecoach - the company with the directors who presumably keep their earnings in a pit with a diving board like Scrooge McDuck - also received £68m in bailout funds for the third South West Trains franchise a year ahead of schedule, after taking legal action against the government. At least RBS waited for things to really go belly up before they shafted us. This sort of thing might annoy those readers who think the railways should be publicly funded, but there’s something for everyone here, because ever since the railways were privatised the subsidies have flown up.

They might be siphoning cash straight out of the exchequer, but don’t worry, these companies are rummaging around in your pockets for loose change at the same time. Ever wondered why buying a ticket from a machine is like attempting to deal in equity derivatives while a 30-strong, tutting queue builds up behind you? Why you can get a “group save” in some places but not others, why you never seem to know for sure if your advance ticket is valid for the journey you’re trying to take, what constitutes "off peak", when “anytime” actually is?

You’d think the train companies would realise there’s an issue, what with successive reports on the subject by the Office of Rail Regulation and Which? pointing out that we all find the labyrinthine systems confusing, but maybe the message hasn’t got through. Either that or overpayments and fines are a nice little sideline.
 
Still, some friendly ticket office staff can help us, can’t they? Well, this leads us back to First Group’s bid for the West Coast rail franchise. It prompted Richard Branson to write to David Cameron, reminding him that the East Coast line had been handed to GNER and then National Express, both of whom hadn’t been able to deliver on their promised plan. Branson was apparently writing from the moral highground despite the fact Virgin has received £1.4bn in subsidies after, well, failing to deliver on its plans for the franchise. Sounds ludicrous? Well done; you're getting the hang of this.

What makes First Group more attractive? The fact it promises to run the line for less. How will it do that? Assuming you don't buy the growth predictions of eight per cent (generous), there’s only one way, and that’s by cutting jobs. This is assuming it does run the line, and doesn’t hand back its contract after promising to pay overly-ambitious premiums, as it did with another last year (which actually meant it was able to keep running the franchise for a few months without paying for it - result!).

The great irony is that somehow all this mess hasn't created that terrible a service. Anyone who thinks renationalisation is a silver bullet hasn't spent six hours in the waiting room at a provincial station on the Continent with no air conditioning and nothing but the town lunatic's thousand-yard-stare to keep you company; pretty much my summer of Interrailing in microcosm. But then anyone who thinks something good can come out of bodies that aren't competing in any normal way probably wasn't watching the women's badminton at the Olympics. The fact is, no one wins.

Actually, that's not quite true. Take a deal like Chiltern Railways' promise to invest £250m to cut journey times between London and Birmingham and provide an alternative route between Oxford and London. It's borrowing the money from Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure. Network Rail can do this because the government guarantees all its debt. The government has promised that Chiltern's successor will pay the outstanding amount once Chiltern's franchise ends, thus guaranteeing a loan from funds it's already underwriting. Have you got that? No, me neither. And such arcane deals require a veritable army of lawyers and consultants; an army that's deliberately complicated the various bidding processes in order to make itself ever more needed.

If Labour don't opt for renationalisation after its policy review, let's hope it looks seriously at simplifying the system - one train operator; one provider of infrastructure. It probably won't happen: there are a lot of "vested interests" (the same ones who were the party's corporate partners only a few years ago) to keep happy. There are all sorts of other ways of getting value for money out of the railways which haven't been explored like developments around train stations, but this is the big one. The alternative is that we all continue being taken for a ride.

 

First Group has beaten off Virgin’s bid for the West Coast Main Line franchise. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.