8 CHOO CHOO CHOO BOOGIE
Trains can disappear mysteriously from timetables in the south-east but for the moment time travel is beyond the National Rail System of the UK. Most rail passengers would settle for trains that ran punctually and fares that were pegged to no more than the rise in price inflation. But if time travel was possible, more folks would remember the promises that accompanied rail privatisation, the confident boasts of soon to arrive modern, comfortable and punctual trains and claims about cheaper prices. All these improvements would be paid through investment undertaken by our dynamic private sector, said the Government and its eager profit hungry partners. Pardon me if I whistle. Pfeffel as much as anyone believed and believes this baloney. He can even take the kids to Peppa Pig World and come away spouting absurdities about how civil servants would struggle to manage amusement parks for children. I suppose, yes they would, as they are, well, civil servants. We can give Pfeffel that one. What we should not give credit to is the belief that the private sector created increased rail traffic. That has been a consequence of increased urbanisation and of motoring becoming both expensive and difficult.
The latest plan to invest in the railways has had a bad press but few of the critical journalists have compared the £96bn proposal with what has already been paid to the private rail companies. Since 1995, when rail privatisation was introduced, 90% of all rail investment has been coughed up by the British taxpayer, known to you and me as mugs. Transport experts warned that running a railway for profit would end in tears but they were ignored. A little short-term subsidy for set up costs but the market will soon sort it out, said the government. The initial 1995 plan was so inept that after five years the annual rail investment or public subsidy was doubled and it is still rising. The average annual subsidy rail from 1995 until the present day is around £5bn a year. Not quite the market deciding, one has to say. Pfeffel has described the proposed £96bn expenditure as the biggest ever investment in rail ever undertaken by a British Government. Some simple maths then, although not so simple for Pfeffel. 26 years at $5bn a year amounts to £130bn paid by British taxpayers since privatisation, all handed over to help risk averse companies to make profits. The reward for all this cash has been reduced services and increasing prices. Pfeffel believes that future long term investment below the levels that has created the existing rail chaos will transform the experience of British commuters. At least he found his way out of Peppa Pig World.
And, of course, it is easy to mock. As my father used to say when I asked him for spare cash, ‘That’s a lot of potatoes, son. Don’t spend it all at once.’ Managing £96bn is not easy. Nor can it be denied that there have been some successes in the rail industry in the UK since 1995. All of them, though, have been delivered by companies that are publicly owned. Unfortunately, most belong to foreign governments. Pfeffel takes pride in what he regards as his creative temperament, hence his disastrous decision to discuss Peppa Pig with the leaders of what is left of British business and industry. It does not, though, need a Tolstoy or literary genius to spot the obvious. Perhaps there is a place for competition in regional rail but the bids should be restricted to the publicly owned rail companies in the UK and Europe. Then the trains might arrive on time. Right now we need to get some Peppa Pigs out of the trough.
First, though, some more time travel. Pfeffel won an election in 2019 by doing something he does rather well. He promised the impossible, and us remembering his adroit sincerity has to put a smile on faces, especially in Northern Ireland. In the beginning there would be a painless Brexit, then extra cash would be given to the North of England to help those poor folk up there create a competitive economy, and last but not least the affluent in the South would see their living standards rise and not even have to pay any extra taxes. The inevitable has happened. The elastic band has snapped, and those who collect that kind of thing are looking for it on a railway line somewhere between Leeds and Manchester.
Nothing has been more embarrassing than poorly briefed Tory spokespersons imitating the charge of the light brigade and arguing that the cancellation of the HS2 high speed link between Manchester and Leeds will make all rail travellers better off. Actually there is something more embarrassing. It is Nadine Dorries Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport attending a Parliamentary Committee this week and arguing that the public sector media organisation Channel 4 should be reviewed and evaluated against private sector alternatives. Only one problem with that claim. Channel 4 is not in the public sector. Apologies, need to get back on track. Not quite in the class of Nadine but still more than capable of tripping over their open mouths were the not so bright government defenders of the rail investment plan. This is what has come out of some rather vacant faces. Cancelling the HS2 link between Leeds and Manchester will free up funds to improve local rail services, those that connect towns. This way, they said, there will be more local rail stations and more trains for pesky passengers trapped in the snowy wastes around the northern uplands. To be fair to the government spokespersons they lasted longer than Nadine Dorries arguing black was white but not by much.
The promised £96bn investment has two elements, the HS2 rail link and something called Northern Powerhouse Rail. The £57bn HS2 investment is supposed to transform travel between the major cities of the UK, and the £39bn allocated to Northern Powerhouse Rail is to improve local services. What somehow was forgotten by the Tory spokespersons, and much of the British Press, is that £7bn has been lopped off the previous £46bn allocation to Northern Powerhouse Rail. That is more than a 15% reduction in a budget that was supposed to close the gap between what is spent on public transport in the north and equivalent expenditure in the south. Northern Powerhouse Rail is a defunct project. Instead there will be piecemeal improvements. Transport funding for London from government equates to £2731 per person. In the North East it is £5 per person, and, no, there are no missing zeros. That means Londoners receive a transport subsidy over 500 times higher than their fellow British citizens in the North East. The London region receives more transport subsidy than all the other English regions together. The truth is that northerners like to use public transport. It is a highlight of their occasional weekend trips to London and their holidays abroad. And perhaps so do the folks from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the £96bn investment plan only refers to England. Not that you would necessarily know it from reading the British Press. Thank God for the New Civil Engineer magazine. In language that the New Civil Engineer would never use this almighty cock up is the responsibility of the English and us alone. And there are more problems ahead. Mark Wild, the CEO of Transport for London, has warned that it is imperative that more money is made available for the train services in the capital. London is at breaking point, has said Mr Wild.
The cancellation of the high speed link between Leeds and Manchester has not just upset local businessmen. Newspaper reports have indicated that between Leeds and Manchester some people have seen their homes destroyed to make way for a railway line that will not exist. The HS2 link between Manchester and Leeds was also claimed to be essential for the economic recovery of the city of Bradford. Well, up there on the moors they do have the National Science and Media Museum. How many, though, make the protracted journey to look at pre-digital cameras is not known. Bradford will remain a city that has 500,000 people without access to a mainline railway station.
Liverpool was supposed to have a high speed link with Hull. This has not been cancelled but no date has been set for work to commence. That perhaps will feature in post-apocalyptic plans when the absence of houses after nuclear destruction should reduce costs significantly. It does not, though, take a holocaust for the Mancunian neighbours of Merseyside to identify the downside of any proposal. The reduction in the time taken to travel to London from Manchester is welcomed on the eastern side of the M62 but some sourpuss has wondered just where the railway lines will be put in a city that is notorious for dense housing and traffic. The official response is that the railway line will be supported by stilts. A history of Victorian aqueducts persuades Mancunians that they have as much right as anyone to be wary about railways on stilts. Nor does it need someone from New Civil Engineer to ask the next question, which is just where will the stilts go. So far the locations of these stilts have not been shared with the residents of Manchester. A few people best described as drunkards’ dreams accept that a feasibility study into this will have been done. The rest already have serious misgivings.
At least Pfeffel is having less criticism from Tory MPs in the House of Commons. This is not because his performances have improved. Last week, Pfeffel was admonished by the Speaker on four occasions. Thanks to plenty of experience, Pfeffel knows how to eat humble pie and he did. More than a few Tory MPs are vacating the House of Commons when Pfeffel appears. Makes one wonder why 137 of them ever needed a second home to do their job. No one should expect an insurrection soon. We have a fool that does not know Channel 4 was a private company and she is running a government department for media and culture. There seems little danger that Captain Pfeffel will lose his status within his hopeless team that is guiding our country towards the light. On such a journey, of course, nothing can beat a railway track. But just when you want one, where are they?
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.