Britain’s rail system is working OK for once. So the Competition & Markets Authority wants to stuff it up

Choo choo: another busy day at King's Cross. Image: Getty.

The current British rail system*, for the first time in about a century, works quite well. Performance figures and passenger numbers are around all-time highs, and subsidies are around the lowest level since the collapse of Railtrack in 2001.

So naturally, almost everyone in the political sphere, from left to right, is trying to break it again. The recent report from the government’s competition quango, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), is the worst of a bad bunch of proposals.

Although some people wilfully obscure it, the structure of the rail network is quite simple. In short, government-owned Network Rail owns and operates the tracks; train operating companies (TOCs) like South West Trains are contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) to run passenger train services, based on government tenders (“franchises”); and privately-owned freight operators pay a charge to Network Rail to use its tracks.

There are a few complications, of course. Charter trains (steam excursions, football specials) can use the tracks by paying a charge like freight companies do, so long as there’s spare room. And there are special arrangements for services controlled by devolved governments, such as London Overground and Scotrail.

There’s also a weird, hybrid class of passenger train operator, created during the Major government’s privatisation process at the Treasury’s insistence: the “Open Access Operators”, such as Grand Central. These work like charter trains, except instead of using spare room, they are given timetabled paths that take capacity from TOCs. They aren’t under tender to the DfT and don’t have public service obligations, and so can run profitable services without paying the government; as a result, the services they run tend to be cheaper and better than TOC services.

The UK subsidises its railways less than almost anywhere, which means that – although you can pick up bargain off-peak advance fares – peak fares on popular services are high. But this has been true since British Rail, at least (Citymetric pay rates are sadly not quite high enough to warrant the work required to track down per-mile journey rates in pre-WWII days, as fun as that would be). The railway is also running at capacity on many of its popular routes, due to favourable geography, soaring house prices, road congestion, and decades of under-investment prior to the current era.

Together, these factors mean that if you’re a peak-time rail commuter, you probably wanted to punch me when you read this article’s first sentence. When you’re paying a lot of money to spend an hour each way with your nose in someone else’s armpit, the fact that the journey is costing the taxpayer less than ever isn’t much comfort.

If you’re a grumpy left-leaning commuter, your eyes may well turn to the profiteering bastards with their name on your train. Never mind that TOC profits only account for 3 per cent of industry costs; if it wasn’t for those GreatSouthCentralLink bastards, your train would be as cheap and empty and reliable as the Swiss one you once caught on holiday. Abolish them and let the government run the trains!


And if you’re a grumpy conservative commuter, the fault is clearly with the Blairite socialists who brought back British Rail after Railtrack went bust. Fix the Attlee government’s original mistake and bring back the Big Four, running their own private trains on their own private tracks with proper wooden dining cars!

There are politicians on the left and on the right who are willing to lobby each of these views. Both sides are probably wrong, but there are decent arguments in favour of both.

If you’re a rabid Thatcherite ideologue, however, the problem is that the trains weren’t privatised competitively enough. Instead of TOCs, all trains should be open-access, competing against each other day-by-day and train-by-train with no inter-available tickets, like that nice Grand Central train you caught to your meeting in York.

This view is outright silly. As Sir Patrick Brown, permanent secretary at the DfT in the 1990s, said on a documentary broadcast in October 2002: “I don’t think any of us in the Department of Transport thought that open access… could have any part in the privatisation. But you couldn’t say so.” (BBC 4, “Witness to History: Privatising the Railways”.)

The railways aren’t like roads: train and track operators need a close working relationship (whoever owns them); paths are scarce and time-dependent; and boosting frequencies is pointless if trains aren’t turn-up-and-go. It’s worse still for people on less-used routes: the miserable failure of the bus industry outside London shows how badly the “competition plus subsidy for the uncompetitive bits” model works, even without the complications of rail.

It should be very worrying, then – no matter what your political views – that ahead of the Treasury’s rail review, the CMA has published a report which says that the future of rail lies in open access operators.

Like the people who drove the original failed privatisation, the CMA is made up of finance and business people with no transport background. If the government listens to their advice, it will be yet another rail disaster.

*By “British” I mean the system controlled by Network Rail in England, Wales and Scotland. The Northern Irish system is very different and not geographically connected to the rest of the network; London Underground and various regional metro/tram systems are also run and operated separately.

 

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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