“No one took charge” – that is the rail regulator’s view of the timetable travel chaos that left thousands of passengers stranded. So I’d like to talk umbrellas with the man who was supposed to be in charge.
This year already, the East Coast line has been renationalised for the second time in ten years; delays have been caused by strikes and engineering works; and the summer rolled in miserably as those timetables caused massed cancellations across the North and for commuters into London.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has not taken the blame for any of this; he is always failing to do that. Instead, he talks up private ownership, saying in a garbled way that “privatisation has delivered huge benefits of [sic] passengers on Britain’s railways – doubling passenger journeys and bringing in billions of private investment”.
Here now is my umbrella parallel. In a wet country people buy umbrellas; in a particularly downpouring year, they buy even more umbrellas. This does not suggest that ownership of the umbrella industry is a huge success for private industry: it suggests that people buy umbrellas when it rains.
More people travelling on the trains can be for many reasons, not least that driving anywhere is torture. Maybe where they work lacks parking; or perhaps they work in London where driving is discouraged. Or maybe they commute by train because there is no other reasonable choice.
None of this indicates that privatisation is responsible for that rise in passenger journeys; people take the train because they have little alternative. Umbrellas and rain.
Hymning rising passenger numbers as a success of privatisation is therefore specious logic. Especially when the Virgin/Stagecoach operation has withdrawn early from the East Coast line, leaving the taxpayer to step in again.
And here’s another thing, how much does privatisation cost the taxpayer in supporting private industry, and then taking over when running a line proves to be too much?
Much the same happens with privately run prisons. Birmingham prison was run by G4S until recently, when the government took over declaring it had fallen into a “state of crisis”.
Isn’t this often the way? Private industry creams off the state until everything goes wrong.
But back to Mr Grayling. The concluding part of his statement said: “But it is clear that the structure we inherited is no longer fit to meet today’s challenges and cope with increasing customer demand.”
You will look long and hard at that sentence before you find Mr Grayling admitting that he is “no longer fit to meet today’s challenges”. No, instead he blames “the structure we inherited”.
In his interim report in the timetable failures, Stephen Glaister, chairman of the Office or Road and Rail, singled out for criticism train operators Govia, Northern and Northern Rail, Network Rail – and the Department of Transport (you know, the one run by Mr Not My Fault Grayling).
Mr Grayling has announced a review of the railways, although it is not reported whether he has announced a review of himself.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald reversed into the sidings mumbling about rocketing fares, failing franchises and timetable chaos. Then he said: “The railways need a Labour government which will deliver public ownership of rail.”
Ah, yes. That one. It is one of the confusions of life that you can feel privatisation isn’t the answer – but neither is taking everything back into public hands. I honestly don’t know how to untangle that one. Would the state running the railways be an improvement or an endless drain on money and a distraction from other jobs a government ought to concentrate on, such as tackling poverty and building social housing and keeping the NHS afloat?
It is easy to suspect that Labour wouldn’t take the railways into public ownership so much as come up with a different sort of public/private hybrid.
Best advice is to buy an umbrella and walk.