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 One of the biggest criticisms of the rail network in NSW is that its infrastructure is outdated, meaning travel times are slow enough to make air travel the preferred option.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 Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.