Office of Rail Regulation: nationalised rail firm is most efficient in the country

East Coast gets a net subsidy of just 1 per cent, ORR reports.

The Financial Times, that most fervently socialist of newspapers, reports that the East Coast franchise – the only one of the British rail franchises owned by the state – is outdoing the private sector. Mark Odell reports:

The state-run East Coast mainline has emerged as the most efficiently run rail franchise in terms of its reliance on taxpayer funding, raising questions about a recent government decision to privatise the operation.

The ORR found that among the rail franchises that make net payments to the Treasury, the East Coast mainline, which has been run by the state since November 2009, is reliant on just 1 per cent of government funding once cost of infrastructure is taken into account.

The reliance on state funding of the other nine franchises that make net payments to the government ranges from 3 per cent to 36 per cent.

The news comes shortly after the government announced plans to refranchise East Coast to the private sector. Odell reports that those plans were "designed to draw a line under the months of chaos in the UK rail industry triggered by the West Coast fiasco", but they were widely seen as a spoiler for Labour's plans for the railway system, which would have kept the franchise in public hands.

As Railnews writes, "a new East Coast franchise, once let, would be difficult and expensive to reverse until it had run its natural term, which could be ten years or more." That's quite a long time to bind the country into a style of management which seems to be sub-par.

Maria Eagle, Labour's shadow transport secretary, used the report to double-down on that position:

Considering the East Coast service makes one of the highest annual payments to government, receives the least subsidy and is the only route on which all profits are reinvested in services, it makes no sense for the government to prioritise this privatisation over getting the rest of the industry back on track.

Of course, even "privatising" East Coast might not be quite what it sounds like. As Christian Wolmar wrote in 2011:

In a way, it’s funny. The Brpitish railway system is slowly being renationalised, but not by our own government. Rather, it is being taken over by foreign state-owned railways that now have an interest in almost half the franchises, and in one of the three open access operators as well.

That's as true now as it has ever been. Not one of the three companies bidding to run the privatised parts of Crossrail – operations will still be run by the nationalised Transport for London – is privately held. Instead, the largest transport project in decades will be run by a partnership of a British state-owned firm and either the French, Dutch or German national operator.

The free market: it's a funny place, sometimes.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.