The government has announced that the East Coast Main Line railway franchise is to be scrapped. Now it is to be put into public ownership again in full for the first time since the formation of the franchise in 1996. That was when British Rail was privatised to form the Intercity East Coast franchise. This line covers the route from London’s King Cross to Hull, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
It is one of the most famous railway lines in Britain and I have had the pleasure of the travelling on this line to some great places. One of these is the National Railway Museum in York, which is the premier museum of railway history in Britain. Here I have seen a collection of locomotives that have been the flying symbols of Britain’s railway history. Some of them like the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman have been on the East Coast line. Specifically the London North Eastern Railway from the 1920s to the post war years.
Travelling on the East Coast has been a good experience for me as a happy train traveller. I love the sights along the track but I don’t think I get good value for money. The trains on the National Express and Virgin travelling at the speed of the Mallard’s record breaking 126 mph and that is the top speed of a 1930’s steam locomotive. Surely the Intercity 125s and 225s should have a greater capacity than that. The interior of the carriages are still a bit outdated as well with their poor wi-fi and limited power connecting sockets.
Now with the return of nationalisation perhaps the newly formed LNER that will come into service in June 2018 can bring a better service to the railway once again. Nationalising the railways again might me to some people a return to a state owned monopoly of socialism. As a capitalist I might be against this trend in running the railways because the lack of competition will mean a reduction in creativity and efficiency. But as a railway enthusiast I am in favour of nationalisation.
The privatisation of the railways as we learned has a few built in problems. First the aspect of how it was executed wasn’t very good. The government ran the tracks and maintenance of the railways with Network Rail, which took over from the failed consortium Railtrack in 2001. Since then the railways have now been run 50:50 with the government engineering the track and the rail companies operating the services, the rolling stock, the stations and the fares. The fares have been subsidised by the government, which has reduced over time as the fares have increased because the operators have struggled to raise income to improve standards.
I think it would be a better idea if the nationalisation was done by subcontracting the operations to private industry to boost the economy. In some successful state run companies or agencies the government focuses on a collaboration based policy to run a service for the people in order create jobs and productivity in the private sector.
What LNER could do is engineer and upgrade the railway lines with additional support from private industry. These industries could be based locally to the locations of the maintenance that is required. This will provide a boost to the local economies in those said regions, which might lead to improvements in the lines for the Midlands and Northern regions. One example of this is the poor connectivity of Northern Rail, which has few carriages, no electrified sections of track, and of course the old fashioned Pacer locos that were meant to be a short term solution to low rolling stock.
But total nationalisation isn’t a good thing. One of the reasons the franchises failed was because Network Rail failed to deliver the improved infrastructure, which was supposed to help the East Coast franchise become profitable. This is because of bad management on their part leading to signal failures and underbuilt track.
Upgrading the lines for their resilience to the environment is also an issue. Strong winds and flooding have meant cancellations on sections of track. Southern Rail has a reputation for failing and shutting down it’s services in bad weather. The staff are also in disputes with their managers over the use of driver-only trains and a lack of drivers has led to fewer or slower services. And let’s not forget the constant shut downs and reduced services in recent years because of snow on the tracks.
During the construction of the Crossrail line for London Transport the line from Shenfield to London Liverpool Street was frequently closed on weekends, which disrupted many travel plans for people including my own. There should be a greater capacity for upgrades in parts of the country’s railways that have their age as their weakness. That involves a supply chain of spare parts, organisations and staff inspecting the tracks and power supply on a regular basis.
One useful creation that could come from this collaborated nationalisation plan would be the introduction of light railway lines. These could be useful services to serve the place of the routes shut down by the Beeching Cuts. Especially in places where road traffic has increased to a point that more transport links are in demand.