An Australian rail network raises awkward questions for Michael Portillo

Choo, choo: a train at Metford, New South Wales. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The recent news that rail fares are due to increase yet again has once again raised questions about whether the rail network in the UK should be taken back into public ownership. When John McDonnell announced earlier this year that Labour would consider reviving British Rail in order to bring “full integration” to the rail network, there was much speculation as to what this might look like in practice, and whether it was a good idea.

Jonathan Cowie of the Independent was not alone in expressing caution about a rush to nationalisation, suggesting that a re-evaluation of the existing franchise system might be preferable. Yet we do not have to search for long to find state-owned systems that offer preferable solutions to our current system.

One such system is that operated in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, which, later this year, will feature in the latest series of Michael Portillo's Great Railway Journeys. One of the biggest criticisms of the rail network in NSW is that its infrastructure is outdated, meaning travel times are slow enough to make air travel the preferred option. In spite of this fault, however, the gulf in ticket prices between NSW and Britain is sufficient to raise awkward questions for those who defend our privatised system.

By way of illustration, a journey from Sheffield Midland Station to London St. Pancras via Chesterfield and Derby takes roughly two hours, getting you there in relative speed and comfort. The only drawback is the cost. If you aren't able to plan your schedule weeks in advance, a one-way ticket can reach £40-50 within a week of travel, and up to £75 pounds purchase on the day.

Meanwhile, in NSW, a journey from Sydney to Newcastle, another former steel and coal city which lies 100 miles north along the Pacific coast, costs a fraction of this price. From Monday to Saturday, a trip to Newcastle costs A$8 (£4.50) and on Sunday just $2.70 (£1.50). And these, remember, are on-the-day prices. In addition, on Sunday there is a $2.70 fare cap, meaning that the charge to your Opal card (an Oyster Card equivalent) is a nominal $0.23 (10p).

During a recent episode of This Week, “Choo Choo” Portillo strongly defended the privatisation of British Rail, emphasising that the number of tragic rail accidents that had occurred during his time in government in the early 1990s had been partly responsible for persuading him that the operator had to be privatised. He is known also for boasting that the privatisation the government he served in pushed through is responsible for the rise in passenger numbers in the past twenty years.


During his new series, Portillo will travel from Sydney to Broken Hill, NSW. An economy seat for the trip booked a week in advance will cost approximately £35 for the 600-mile journey.

For those wishing to simulate the same journey in the UK, one can purchase a ticket for the 600-mile journey from London to the Kyle of Lochalsh. A week in advance, this ticket is priced at £183 on the National Rail Enquiries website. Has Portillo ever discussed the price of his rail tickets during his show? What he will make of the NSW system in comparison to Britain?

The cost of rail transport in the UK is scandalous. It impacts not only on the ability of people to access jobs and training in other cities, but also inhibits their cultural mobility. Portillo may have had his reasons for advocating the privatisation of British Rail, but he should now explain why the current British system is superior to that offered elsewhere. It is noteworthy that the company responsible for operating the NSW system, Transport for New South Wales, is a statutory authority, created by the Liberal-National Party coalition which took control of the NSW Government in 2011. (The Liberals are the Australian equivalent of the Conservative Party.)

Such is the scale of the problem in the UK that it has recently been remarked that air travel is becoming a cheaper and more convenient method of intercity travel than rail. This would be acceptable in Australia – a train journey from Sydney to Melbourne can take nine hours – making a one hour flight for $50 dollars a reasonable investment for commuters. However, the fact that it can be cheaper to be flown in a private plane from London to Newcastle rather than take the three hour train journey indicates that our system is broken.

If the Labour Party are serious about reforming rail travel, then the NSW system should be examined closer as a model for renewing British rail infrastructure.

All of the ticket costs in this article were worked out on www.nationalrail.com and www.transportnsw.info.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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