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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.