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Artillery Row

The Great British Rail-Off

Don’t look a gift train in the mouth

Astonishing scenes this week, whereby the Tory government announces a White Paper to re-nationalise the railways. The union bosses and Guardianistas who have called for such policy for decades immediately decided that actually it’s a terrible idea, or that this doesn’t count as re-nationalising because it’s the Conservatives doing it, or that calling the new entity “Great British Railways” just because it will run Great Britain’s railways is so offensive that the entire project should be called off. It’s all very tribal, and very silly, and very 2021, alas.

Of course, the Department for Transport (DfT) is still afraid of admitting that this is in fact renationalisation, as to do so would be to rile up certain elements of the Right, and to admit what we all know: that their generations-long experiment in railway privatisation has been a failure. Today we have a service which is overpriced, unreliable, and generally an unpleasant and ineffective experience from start to finish.

Desperate to dance around this stigma, DfT is assuring us that the new proposals are merely simplification, whereby a single public body will own and manage all of Britain’s railways (very difficult to see how this can be called anything other than renationalisation), contracting specialist private partners on a far more flexible and competitive basis, in an operational model very similar to (and likely based directly on) that used by Transport for London for the London Overground service and the Docklands Light Railway. Frankly, it’s all very, very exciting.

We still very much feel the consequences of the Beeching axe today

Given far less attention was last year’s announcement of the half-million-pound “Ideas Fund” to reopen long-since closed local railway stations and parochial lines, and in retrospect it’s hard not to see these as being a part of the same grand masterplan. Around 50 bids were submitted for up to £50,000 each, with 10 approved in the first round, and another 15 in the second. These localised projects are all part of parliamentary efforts to discreetly heal some of the wounds left by the horrific Beeching cuts of the 1960s, which saw local services decimated and non-metropolitan communities cut off from each other, in what is widely acknowledged now as a deeply destructive act of bureaucratic inhumanity and profit-focused hubris. Not to mention a wildly optimistic over-estimation of the reliability of buses as replacement services.

The aim of the Beeching cuts, which followed on from a pair of reports written by Dr Richard Beeching in 1963 and 1965 for the British Railway Board (of which he was Chair), was to turn the loss-making British railways network into a profitable enterprise. Prioritising this profitability over all else, he proposed axing about a third of Britain’s then 7000 railway stations, removing passenger service from around 5000 route miles, and cutting 70,000 jobs over three years. The moves were highly controversial, and though they certainly saved money, the social consequences were extensive and the scars remain visible today.

As a consequence of the cuts, Britain became over-reliant on car travel, and over the 1970s and 80s town planners gutted the experientially human-scale city centres in service of this newly favoured road transport. We still very much feel the consequences of the Beeching axe today, whereby a rail journey between neighbouring cities is often only possible by zigzagging up to London and back down again, and public transport between rural communities is limited to one bus service every hour or two in the morning and mid-afternoon, which crawls along at a testudinian pace, further isolating and atrophying the scattered settlements that once were happy, thriving homes.

The other looming behemoth in Britain’s railway is, of course, the inescapable HS2. As a committed rural-utopianist and romantic I cannot be a fan of this hugely ambitious (and hugely expensive) infrastructure upgrade; the near-unparalleled loss of heritage and the natural environment cannot, in my world view, be justified by the projected benefits of the scheme. Nevertheless, it is happening, and will fundamentally change the face of rail travel in Britain, and provide swingeing benefits as it does so, to passenger and freight services alike.

The main criticisms being bandied about are pathetically shallow and partisan

In 2018, after a series of catastrophic train franchise failings and timetable changes bruised the nation, all with an apparently total absence of accountability, the Williams Review into the railway structure was initiated. The Williams Review, on much-delayed completion, birthed the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, which in turn has birthed the government White Paper. The plan it outlines is an appropriately expansive 30 year one, and it promises to enact real and undeniable change, to de-Kafka the labyrinthine ticketing, complaints and management systems, to increase coverage and efficiency, and to vastly improve the passenger experience.

I can’t help but be optimistic about it all, especially as the main criticisms I’m seeing bandied about are pathetically shallow and partisan. There’s much whining about the name being jingoistic – though it’s clearly designed to evoke the legendary Great Western Railway and the considerably less-legendary British Rail, whilst remaining an accurate self-description. I don’t recall similar hostility to Scotrail or Trenitalia, and the endless performative hostility to national identity is becoming increasingly embarrassing.

There are others who worry that if such a Britain-wide scheme is the success it looks likely to be, it might strengthen the Union and make Scottish independence less likely. It seems bizarre to me that this could be a point of criticism; if you would rather things were getting steadily worse for the constituent nations then maybe you aren’t so much acting in the interests of those nations, as you are engaging in some sort of grand act of cultural Munchausen, with endless others suffering to serve your own precious cult of ideology and luxury principle.

The future of Great British rail is an exciting one. With high-speed trains, upgraded stations, re-opened parochial lines that have been dormant for decades, greater community links and a simplified, publicly owned system, we have a lot to look forward to. Though there are deep costs, the proposals could improve the environment, reduce congestion, and re-humanise cities and towns. They could inject new life into isolated communities that have been on the wane for over 50 years.

The national damage caused by Beechings’ cuts and later railway privatisation has rippled across the decades like a rock hurled into a river. Not only are proposals finally in place to reverse and repair some of the damage, but a new, visionary future which corrects the mistakes of the past is on the horizon. To reject it just because you’d rather the other fellow was the one who fixed it for you is the ugliest sort of privilege there is.

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