BRIAN WILSON’S COLUMN: MAKING BRITAIN’S RAILWAYS GREAT DEPENDS ON INVESTMENT – NOT FLAGS

Even if you have to hang around a while, it’s nice to be proven right. In the case of Britain’s railways, the journey has taken 25 years, WRITES BRIAN WILSON

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ statement to the Commons this week verged on the comical.  Here he was, with flowery rhetoric dating all the way back to the Flying Scotsman, admitting the great Tory masterplan has failed.

There is “too much confusion for passengers”.  The industry is “fragmented, it lacks accountability and it is lacking in leadership”.  In the brave new world, “we are going to sort out and simplify ticketing”. And so amusingly on.

It certainly brought back memories. I spent the mid-1990s making exactly these arguments as Labour’s spokesman on railways with the mission, at Westminster and around the country, of turning rail privatisation into an electoral liability for the Tories.

The role provided an enjoyable way to spend a few years in opposition and  the more I got into the detail, the clearer the line to take became. While rail privatisation was bad, and driven by ideology, fragmentation was completely mad – and extremely costly.  So it has remained.

While it was not possible to stop the folly of the 1990s, the consolation was that rail privatisation played a huge part in the fall of the Major government – because it was a threat which carried great resonance in parts of the country Labour did not normally reach.

Mr Shapps was at pains to claim his new scheme is “not renationalisation” and he is technically correct. I reckon about 90 per cent of the industry will be in state hands.  The Great British Railway  – and please, spare us the flag-waving – will incorporate Network Rail (renationalised in 2002 after privatised Railtrack collapsed), ticketing and awarding operator contracts, as well as taking over once they flee when there is no more subsidy to fleece.

What distinguished railways from other big privatisations was that it was never an industry which generated profit. Under state ownership, you got the railway a government was prepared to pay for – and it was by no means as deficient as now pretended. Privatisation meant more subsidy and innumerable points of cash leakage.

The arch-exploiters of privatisation, like Souter and Branson, made fortunes before vacating the tracks while other great beneficiaries of rail fragmentation have been lawyers and accountants with vast numbers of contracts and disputes to rack up fees over. In future, hopefully, money earmarked for railways goes into services rather than sustaining those who feed off confusion.

In a token attempt to defend what he was in the process of dismantling, Mr Shapps claimed privatisation had led to “investment that would not have happened under nationalisation”.  Tell that to every European country which has built brilliant rail networks over these decades while Britain’s remains mired in under-investment and unreliability.

The Scottish Government has rightly decided to establish a publicly-owned Scotrail which should be a route to ensuring value for taxpayers’ money and responsiveness to customer expectations. But don’t take it for granted.

We do not have to look far for confirmation that public ownership on its own does not guarantee happy outcomes. Caledonian MacBrayne is entirely owned by the Scottish Government and, by common consent, is currently providing the most unreliable service across its network in living memory.

Everyone agrees the workforce is excellent, both on board ships and in ports, and there is certainly no shortage of money going into the twin sporrans of CalMac and CMAL. Yet the outcomes are inescapably awful with nobody taking responsibility.

There are differences between the structures which govern ferries and railways but there is one lesson common to both. Unless there is Ministerial leadership, clear lines of command and management that knows what it is doing, public ownership alone will not guarantee a service Scotland can be proud of.

That said, for all who care about our railways, the prospect of trains, tracks and ticketing under public control should be seen as a great opportunity to redress recent history, with a duty to succeed. So let’s get it right.

Picture of steam train at Dalreoch by John Kelenfoldi

PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING NEEDS FRIENDS TO DEFEND IT

There have never been better grounds for giving the BBC a kicking than those provided by Lord Dyson’s inquiry into Martin Bashir’ interview with Princess Diana.

Its enemies do not need to fabricate left-wing bias or attack the licence fee principle. All they will do for years to come is invoke the Dyson report and the responses from Diana’s two sons, mere children at the time.

It is a thoroughly disgusting story and Mr Bashir richly deserves the ignominy which will now pursue him as opposed to the riches and unwarranted reputation that the interview earned him over the past quarter century.

While it goes without saying that there will be hypocrisy among sections of the press which have never flinched from equally disreputable tactics, the BBC will not find much sympathy for pointing this out.

The deed was bad enough, and the cover-up has been even worse. How on earth did Mr Bashir find his way back into the BBC in 2016 as, of all things, religious affairs correspondent? That alone demands explanation.

My own instinct has always been to defend the BBC, misgivings subordinated to a far stronger distaste for the motives of those dedicated to attacking it. However, the demand for a fundamental review of an organisation which has outgrown itself in both scale and self-esteem is  now likely be irresistible.

The challenge will be to protect what is best in the BBC from those who were its enemies long before Mr Bashir’s sins caught up with him. The defence of public service broadcasting, universally funded and free from advertising, cannot be entrusted to the BBC alone.

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