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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This fun map allows you to see what a nuclear detonation would do to any city on Earth

A 1971 nuclear test at Mururoa atoll. Image: Getty.

In 1984, the BBC broadcast Threads, a documentary-style drama in which a young Sheffield couple rush to get married because of an unplanned pregnancy, but never quite get round to it because half way through the film the Soviets drop a nuclear bomb on Sheffield. Jimmy, we assume, is killed in the blast (he just disappears, never to be seen again); Ruth survives, but dies of old age 10 years later, while still in her early 30s, leaving her daughter to find for herself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

It’s horrifying. It’s so horrifying I’ve never seen the whole thing, even though it’s an incredibly good film which is freely available online, because I once watched the 10 minutes from the middle of the film which show the bomb actually going off and it genuinely gave me nightmares for a month.

In my mind, I suppose, I’d always imagined that being nuked would be a reasonably clean way to go – a bright light, a rushing noise and then whatever happened next wasn’t your problem. Threads taught me that maybe I had a rose-tinted view of nuclear holocaust.

Anyway. In the event you’d like to check what a nuke would do to the real Sheffield, the helpful NukeMap website has the answer.

It shows that dropping a bomb of the same size as the one the US used on Hiroshima in 1945 – a relatively diddly 15kt – would probably kill around 76,500 people:

Those within the central yellow and red circles would be likely to die instantly, due to fireball or air pressure. In the green circle, the radiation would kill at least half the population over a period of hours, days or weeks. In the grey, the thing most likely to kill you would be the collapse of your house, thanks to the air blast, while those in the outer, orange circle would most likely to get away with third degree burns.

Other than that, it’d be quite a nice day.

“Little boy”, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was tiny, by the standards of the bombs out there in the world today, of course – but don’t worry, because NukeMap lets you try bigger bombs on for size, too.

The largest bomb in the US arsenal at present is the B-83 which, weighing in at 1.2Mt, is about 80 times the size of Little Boy. Detonate that, and the map has to zoom out, quite a lot.

That’s an estimated 303,000 dead, around a quarter of the population of South Yorkshire. Another 400,000 are injured.

The biggest bomb of all in this fictional arsenal is the USSRS’s 100Mt Tsar Bomba, which was designed but never tested. (The smaller 50MT variety was tested in 1951.) Here’s what that would do:

Around 1.5m dead; 4.7m injured. Bloody hell.

We don’t have to stick to Sheffield, of course. Here’s what the same bomb would do to London:

(Near universal fatalities in zones 1 & 2. Widespread death as far as St Albans and Sevenoaks. Third degree burns in Brighton and Milton Keynes. Over 5.9m dead; another 6m injured.)

Everyone in this orange circle is definitely dead.

Or New York:

(More than 8m dead; another 6.7m injured. Fatalities effectively universal in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Hoboken.)

Or, since it’s the biggest city in the world, Tokyo:

(Nearly 14m dead. Another 14.5m injured. By way of comparison, the estimated death toll of the Hiroshima bombing was somewhere between 90,000 and 146,000.)

I’m going to stop there. But if you’re feeling morbid, you can drop a bomb of any size on any area of earth, just to see what happens.


And whatever you do though: do not watch Threads. Just trust me on this.

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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