Would EU rules really prevent Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party renationalising the railways?

Long wait. Image: Callum Chapman on Unsplash.

Last week, the UK government has announced that it would take control of the failing East Coast train line. The franchise will now end in June 2018 – only three years into its eight-year contract. Twice before, in 2006 and 2009, the private company running the route from London to Edinburgh ended their contract early.

This has intensified calls for Britain’s railways to be renationalised – a manifesto pledge of the Labour opposition in the 2017 national election. It is a policy surveys suggest has strong public support.

Yet whether and how renationalising the railways might be achieved depends on the final Brexit deal the UK strikes with the European Union. Under current EU competition policy, Britain could not recreate a railway monopoly. It could, however, bring much of the rail sector into public ownership.

The British model

Britain’s railways are a three party affair: the infrastructure manager, the train service operators and the train leasing companies. Network Rail is the public body responsible for track maintenance and investment. Its predecessor was a for-profit company that was replaced following a series of fatal train crashes attributed to poor track maintenance.

Train service operators – all the rail company names you encounter on your commute – are a mix of subsidiaries of other European national rail companies and private companies. They run train services, earn money from tickets sales, pay a track usage fee to Network Rail, and hire the trains from a train leasing company.

Britain’s railways use a competition-for-the-market model. This means that instead of competitors running the same services alongside each other and vying for passengers, the competition is to win the contract to run part of Britain’s railway network, usually for five to ten years.

Broadly, railway routes fall into two categories: commercially profitable and public service. Train service operators make payments to government to run commercial routes, while receiving subsidies to run public service routes. Often the bidder most optimistic about passenger numbers – therefore, promising the best deal – wins the contract.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded in April 2018 that overly optimistic passenger forecasts were to blame for the collapse of the East Coast mainline franchise.

The franchise’s repeated collapse highlights two key flaws with Britain’s rail model: it incentivises overestimating to win bids, and the government ultimately holds all the risk. Since transport plays too vital a role in keeping the economy going and all of us moving, the government cannot allow the railways to stop running.


EU rules

The key EU rule governing how member states run their railways is that the management of infrastructure and rail services must be separate. Another is that, where a rail route has spare capacity, available time slots to run new services should be open to any operator to purchase. Notable services using this mechanism are the Eurostar and Heathrow Express.

These two key requirements stand in the way of recreating a unified rail monopoly. But, as other EU member states show, the majority of Britain’s railways could be brought back into the public sector.

The EU Commission argued that greater competition on the railways will improve services and reduce fares for passengers. For the past three decades, it has applauded Britain’s railway privatisation and encouraged others to follow Britain’s example.

Key to enabling fair competition on the railways is non-discriminatory track access. For this reason successive EU railway reforms have pushed for independence of infrastructure management. When unveiled in 2013, the EU Commission’s latest railway reforms, the Fourth Railway Package, set out to impose strict institutional separation of infrastructure and rail services, adopting the franchise model on all routes.

But after several years of debate and notable push back from European governments and railway operators – in particular the German Deutsche Bahn and French SNCF – a watered-down version of the Fourth Railway Package passed in 2016. It now only requires infrastructure to be independently managed and allows some public service routes to be directly awarded, specifically where a direct award would lead to better quality or cost-efficiency. This is how many regional services are run by national operators. On all other routes the operator is to be determined by competitive bidding.

Different ways to renationalise

Other European nations demonstrate how Britain could take the railways back into the public sector while abiding by EU rail rules.

There are two main adopted models. The first is two separate state-owned companies (one for track, one for trains), which is used in Spain and the Netherlands.

The second uses separate companies within a state-owned group of companies (a parent company with a subsidiary company for infrastructure, and others for different train services). This is the model used in Germany and Italy.

Switzerland illustrates how Britain’s railways could be renationalised if the UK negotiated an exemption from opening up its railways to competition as part of its Brexit agreement. The Swiss Federal Railway is an example of a unified national railway company that brings together track and trains.

The Japanese model is another alternative that could be adopted if the UK were free from the requirement to separate track and trains. Japan’s railways are divided into regional units. Each unit has an integrated management of track and trains and is operated by one company (some privately, some government run). It is a model the current transport secretary of state, Chris Grayling is keen to see implemented on Britain’s railways.

Britain’s railways are already partial nationalised, as Network Rail is a public body. Although, reinstating a national rail monopoly under current EU rules would not be possible, there are ways that Britain could return many of its railway services to the public sector – Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands all show how this can be effectively done.

Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.