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23 May 2018updated 04 Aug 2021 12:46pm

Chris Grayling is defying common sense in sticking to the same failed course for our railways

Every time Humpty falls off the wall, it gets harder for the Transport Secretary to put him together again; with fewer firms interested in running rebranded rail lines.

By Andrew Murray

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer minister. No Tory has had to rise at the dispatch box to announce an extension of public ownership since the Edward Heath years, but Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has broken the ice. If you want to stick pins in the Nasty Party, make a wax model of Grayling, who tried to ban prisoners from receiving books when he was justice secretary and has engineered a prolonged confrontation with railway union RMT in his present role. He used to specialise in denouncing “Labour sleaze” until his own expense claims hit the headlines.

So it is a sort of karma to see Grayling stepping forward as the reluctant renationaliser, announcing that the thrice-failed East Coast Mainline (ECML) train operating franchise is once more back snug in the arms of the state, for the next two years at least, following where Labour led in 2009 when the same franchise, then operated by National Express, went bust.

It is strange that any politician should have to be dragged kicking and screaming to implement a policy that polls show to be a vote-winner. But Grayling has priority audiences other than the travelling public to consider – the Thatcherite right of the Tory party, for whom privatisation has passed from mere dogma to fetish, and the transport companies that constitute the “market” for rail franchises. Manuel Cortes of the TSSA union was right to describe the announcement as “a complete humiliation for a dyed-in-the-wool market fundamentalist like him [Grayling]. He would have rather walked on broken glass than bring this rail line back into public ownership.”

Grayling’s only Conservative consolation was to announce that the new publicly run ECML would now operate as the London and North-Eastern Railway (LNER), pitching for nostalgia buffs who will recall that the route used that name in the days of the “big four” private monopolies between the wars.

In truth, pointless rebranding spray-jobs is one thing the franchise system has excelled at. Yet again, Treasury-dictated auctions led to private operators (in this case Stagecoach and Virgin in partnership) over-bidding to run a line on the basis of optimistic assumptions, and then finding they could no longer make the expected return, whereupon the baby is handed back to the taxpayer. To suggest that Grayling has learned a lesson would be optimistic too. His plan is to return the railway to the private sector in 2020, quite possibly to Stagecoach and Virgin once more in a new “partnership” with infrastructure owner Network Rail.

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So when you meet the new boss, it could be the same as the old boss. But the public may not be fooled again, particularly by Grayling’s commitment “to bring together the teams operating the track and trains”, an apparently obvious strategy he is attempting to roll out elsewhere on the network.

That has been the refrain across most of the quarter century that has passed since privatisation. Whereas other Tory sell-offs transferred monopolies to private hands and then allowed for the limited development of competition, the integrated British Rail was smashed into a hundred pieces, with banks, bus companies, building firms and property agents all getting their share. They were bound together through contracts policed by an expensive battalion of newly-minted railway lawyers, ineffectual regulators and unabated public subsidy (around £2.4bn a year to train operating companies at present).

Politicians have struggled to make this jerry-built system work, with Labour’s ill-starred Strategic Rail Authority and various ephemeral partnership schemes all dodging the real problem and the obvious solution.

This reached its apotheosis when a Railtrack spokesperson conceded in 2001 that “we had perfectly decent standards for wheels, perfectly decent standards for tracks, but where the two touch perhaps hasn’t had the attention it might have done”. And this in the country of Stephenson and Brunel, and 180 years after a French author, observing the infant British railways, wrote that “it is necessary… to insist that the railroad and its carriages be considered as one machine or as an indivisible entity”.

Railtrack’s transformation into publicly run Network Rail after a welter of fatal accidents around the turn of the century has been so far the only concession to common sense. But Grayling’s problem is that every time Humpty falls off the wall – and several other franchises are now wobbling uncomfortably – it gets harder and harder to put him back together again. Fewer companies are interested in taking a punt on running rebranded train companies, hence the desperation to keep Stagecoach and Virgin in the game, rather than excluding them from bidding for franchises in future on grounds of their fecklessness. The controversial Southern/Thameslink/Great Northern franchise is now being run on a management contract in return for a fixed payment from the government.

The gap is being filled, ironically, by state ownership – just not the British. The German, Dutch, French, Italian and Chinese governments all have a stake in our railway franchises. But since they are not susceptible to democratic pressure from the British voter, the Tories can live with that.

Whether the public – squeezed with rising fares and in many areas held hostage by gridlock because of Grayling’s war on the unions – will do so is another matter. Grayling has postponed route electrification in several parts of the UK, and this week “timetable chaos” has engulfed commuters in London and in the north as franchises struggle to recalibrate their services, something British Rail mostly managed without much fuss. 

Andrew Murray is chief of staff at Unite and an adviser to Jeremy Corbyn. A new edition of his book “Off the Rails” will be published by Verso in 2019

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This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman