Miliband has also been busy ‘looking at options’ for renationalising Britain’s railways at the end of current franchise contracts. This is yet another of what I have called Labour’s ‘targeted tweets’ designed to please trade unions and pick off loose voters — in this case disgruntled south–eastern commuters. What it’s not is a credible, costed policy. Even Ed Balls is said to be distancing himself from such a retrograde idea, while Martin Griffiths, chief executive of the Stagecoach transport group, rightly called it ‘a one-way ticket to higher taxes’ and others in the industry point out that there could be no quicker way to kill existing plans for investment in better trains.
The Miliband case, if we can dignify it thus, is based on the relative success of the East Coast service run by Directly Operated Railways, the ‘arm’s length company’ created by the Department for Transport in 2009 when National Express threw in the towel. As a frequent traveller, I can confirm that East Coast is a marginal improvement on National Express, which was dire but was only there for two years; what’s forgotten is that GNER, the first franchisee on the route from 1996 to 2007, ran a service that set new benchmarks and won real customer loyalty before it was brought down by cash-flow problems in its parent, Sea Containers.
And the irony is that arguably the best of today’s services are already wholly or partly state-owned — just not by our own state. CrossCountry, Grand Central and Chiltern are part of Arriva, owned by German taxpayers through Deutsche Bahn; the Dutch are in East Anglia and the north; the French have 55 per cent of Eurostar.
This is not a rigid ideological issue, because many of the world’s best railways are state-owned. But ours in the British Rail era were among the world’s, or at least Europe’s, worst — ill-managed, under-invested and at the mercy of the unions. Thank goodness Ed Miliband has no real intention of taking them back there.
This is an extract from Martin Vander Weyer’s Any Other Business column in this week’s magazine. Click here to read for free with a trial of The Spectator app for iPad and iPhone. You can also subscribe with a free trial on the Kindle Fire.