Editor’s Note: The Great Railways Debacle – and why Britain has no plan or national story to speak of

No other major Western country has allowed so many of its strategic industries, assets and pre-eminent companies to fall into foreign ownership.

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One recent morning my train to work was cancelled without explanation, as often happens, and so I waited for the next one to arrive. I live in a market town in Hertfordshire and our train service is operated by Greater Anglia, part of Abellio, the ultimate majority owner of which is the Dutch state. The service provided by Greater Anglia is exceptionally shabby. 

At peak times the trains are invariably overcrowded and late – I was told by a Greater Anglia spokesperson that in 2019 at least 15 per cent of all its peak services reached their destinations five minutes late or more – and some of the trains have been in continuous service for 40 years. These trains are prone to breaking down and to faults.

Inside even the more modern trains the carriages, seats and tables are often inexcusably filthy and the general atmosphere is one of squalor and of a train operating “franchise” that simply doesn’t care. We are addressed as “customers”, in the numbing language of our market society, and are treated with contempt. The service is contemptuous of us because we who use it to commute are a captive market: we have no alternative.  

That recent morning when my train was cancelled, the next one (which had come from Stansted Airport) arrived pretty much full, and people were already standing in the carriages. Because of the crush, I ended up standing in first class, where later in the journey I was fined £52.60 by a ticket inspector (the price of a one-way first-class journey) because I had only bought a standard class ticket (£27.70). 

I was not allowed to upgrade my ticket and was instructed that I should “appeal” against the penalty fare. The appeals operator (calls charged at 17p to minute for the pleasure of being stuck in an automated system) was not Greater Anglia but a separate private company. 

I have no quarrel with the ticket inspector: he was doing his job and his female colleague was especially courteous and apologetic. Plus, there were people in the carriage who had paid for first-class seats and were no doubt resentful that others had spilled into their space, as often happens because of overcrowding. 

At the beginning of this year, under the terms of its franchise, Greater Anglia was supposed to have introduced a new fleet of trains without first-class carriages so as to create more seats and a more dignified travelling experience. But the roll-out of the new trains has been significantly delayed, I was told by Greater Anglia, because of a “software fault”. Greater Anglia does not own the trains it operates, just as it does not own the track on which its trains run. It leases trains from a private equity company, which buys them from manufacturers such as Bombardier, a Canadian multinational whose transport division is based in Germany. Are you still with me?

Train travel in Britain is a scandal; commuters spend up to six times more on rail travel than their European counterparts. The short journey to London from Harlow, the working-class town in Essex where I grew up, is now the most expensive in Britain when quantified at the cost per mile travelled. It is operated by none other than Greater Anglia. 

Privatisation of the railways was proclaimed by its Conservative proponents as a great liberation from the mediocrity of a failing state-owned system. Certainly, passenger numbers have risen considerably in recent years – but then so has the working-age population, for a variety of different reasons. But travelling on Britain’s over-priced, disaggregated and failing railway network is not a liberating or pleasurable experience. For regular users, it is becoming little more than an exercise in humiliation.  

In January, Northern (operated by Arriva, part of the German state-owned railway company Deutsche Bahn) became the latest train franchise to be taken over by the government because of its abject performance. “People across the north deserve better, their communities deserve better,” said the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. 

We have heard such sentiments before, notably when the East Coast service was renationalised in 2018; ScotRail and South Western Railway are also candidates to be taken back under government control before too long.

Is dirigiste interventionism the solution for the entire British railway network, as the Labour Party would have it? And should it matter who the ultimate owners are of essential public services, so long as those services are efficiently and accountably operated? 

According to the New York Times, “Of Britain’s 23 major train operators, 18 are now foreign-run – 16 of them by European Union governments and two by China. A majority of the 1.7 billion passenger rail journeys undertaken in Britain each year are now on foreign-managed trains, in addition to most of its 4.5 billion bus trips.”

My preference would be for some kind of mutualist solution to the Great Railway Debacle, combining the interests of workers, passenger groups and the state – something akin, perhaps, to the model of ownership for the national parks in England and Wales. But this won’t happen because, as David Edgerton has written in these pages, Britain does not have a national economic strategy. 

But without a national capitalism or anything resembling a national story to speak of, Britain, this fragmenting multinational state, is left scrambling around in search of a new post-Brexit identity: simultaneously seeking to be more and less open to the world. And the truth of the matter is that no other major Western country has allowed so many of its strategic industries, assets and pre-eminent companies to fall into foreign ownership. We are all grappling with the consequences of this loss of control.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 14 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose