Tuesday, 28th October 2014

by Joshua Gaskell

An open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport:

Dear Mr McLoughlin,

Earlier in the year, I was thinking about the history of New Cross and New Cross Gate stations, opened just ten years and six hundred yards apart by rival entrepreneurs – the Britain being forged in the white heat of the Industrial Revolution was no place for restrictive practices. However, I argued that though our own age is one of free-marketeering white heat regained, it is also inevitably one of restrictive practises; and that, as such, our railways remain in the private sector either through blind faith or (heavily in)vested interests. Now I know how pushy it looks, to quote yourself, but I did relevantly continue,

The trains are overpriced and overfull, supply is not meeting demand; but it’s no longer possible, as happened in 1849, for a group of entrepreneurs to rock up somewhere and compete by actually building. Today’s train operating companies expend all their white heat in competing franchise bids, but once the franchises are awarded they continue as complacently as the nationalised system supposedly did.

Having passed through private and nationalised railways, we’re now stuck with the worst aspects of both: the disadvantages of monopolies, but without the advantages of having them run for the public good. A third way indeed.

I would like provisionally to withdraw this scathing speech and suggest an experiment. Given that we have at our disposal a veritable parliament of train operating companies, squawking for franchises, let’s put their go-getting capitalism to the test.

While a small number of the stations that fell under the Beeching Axe have since been reopened – funded by local councils and government agencies – most of them remain closed. So given that public money is tight, lets give the TOCs – from Abellio to Virgin – carte blanche to raise money from private investors and put forward proposals to reopen and run old branch-line stations. This should be a win–win: if they prove themselves the entrepreneurial equals to the London and Croydon Railway of old, then a few towns will get their stations back; and if they prove themselves to be supinely rent-seeking organisations, then that’ll settle the matter and we can bring back British Rail without delay.

Yours sincerely,
Donald Pincher, SE23.