Matthew Plummer is a commercial photographer.
Two years ago, I was on my way back to London from my first Party conference in Manchester. The train carriage was rammed full, with the heating inexplicably on full blast. This situation was made worse by the buffet being closed, so with no water for the two hours we were stuck in oven-like conditions.
Not fun – but not exactly life-endangering, and Virgin Trains offered me two first class tickets to any part of their network as compensation.
I mention this merely because it is a good example of how, under privatisation, our railways now ‘do’ customer service. Yes, there is still enormous room for improvement. And, yes, train travel can be utterly maddening – as anyone stuck at Finsbury Park after Christmas knows only too well. But the upshot of my trip back from conference was that I thought Virgin Trains were actually bothered about whether or not I’d want to travel with them again.
Why, then, is renationalising the railways so bizarrely popular – even with Conservative voters? People almost willingly ignore how much better our trains are than the squalid service that state-owned SNCF runs to some loose timetable on the other side of the Channel.
Yet you don’t have to go to France to see what a renationalised railways would be like for the travelling public: look no further than our own East Coast service, which was run by the Department for Transport for five years. The chaos at King’s Cross last Christmas was caused by state-owned Network Rail, but compounded by the customer service of then nationalised East Coast trains, whose operation propped up the bottom of the national railways performance tables before the company was returned to the private sector a month ago.
Let me explain it another way.
Remember how privatised Virgin Trains made up for my poor travelling experience? Well, in early January my cousin was travelling from Aberdeen to Kings Cross on ‘nationalised’ East Coast. My cousin has muscular dystrophy and is stuck in a wheelchair. Alas, the train’s disabled lavatory was out of service for the entire seven hours of the journey – and his request for help via the disabled assistance button was ignored.
Not unreasonably, he wrote to East Coast. The state-owned company replied – two months later – by sending him a voucher for £10. A tenner! I can’t imagine Richard Branson would regard ten quid as anything other than a slap in the face of a disabled man ignored by the train staff, and unable to pee for the best part of a public sector working day.
Many people remember British Rail as a proxy for a halcyonic Britain that never existed. But it was free enterprise that gave us our railway glory days, with ‘privatised’ LNER’s Mallard breaking the speed record and Glasgow’s ‘privatised’ North British dominant as the world’s largest locomotive builder, selling to all corners of the globe.
Nationalisation in 1948 put a stop to all that: British Rail was an introspective operation that closed down railway lines, treated passengers badly and built locomotives that we couldn’t export. Its head office was nicknamed ‘The Kremlin’ – and with good reason.
Miliband’s lot would put the faceless apparatchiks at the Department for Transport back in charge of our trains; leaves on the line would be the least of our worries. The East Coast franchise was a timely reminder of what renationalised railways would be like – and my cousin has the £10 voucher to prove it.