A couple of weeks ago the government announced (with pens hovering over contracts) that it was prematurely ending the process for awarding the West Coast Main Line (WCML) franchise. This came after Virgin – the loser – initiated legal action to force the government to disclose why it had provisionally awarded the contract to First. During the process of preparing for the case the Government discovered that it had got its sums wrong.
We can argue that it shows that the government is incompetent. We can argue that it shows that Beardie is not a man you want to mess with. We can possibly argue that over-optimistic assumptions about the economy have a lot to do with this. And we can certainly argue that this creates a lot of uncertainty and this is a bad thing because train operators will not be able to make any plans.
But really this is wood for the trees stuff. The fact is that the government (or, to put it another way, the violent part of society) should have nothing to do with the railway. Decisions about the railway should be made by the market (i.e. the peaceful part of society).
Hence, we shouldn’t have franchising, or subsidy, or the split between the wheel and the rail. Yes, unbelievable as it may sound to the uninitiated, in Britain train operators are not allowed to own the track and track owners (or owner – there’s only one) are not allowed to run trains. Railways should be liberated from the state and allowed to stand or fall on their own merits.
My guess is that they will stand (or at least the WCML will). I’ve just returned from Japan where the railways were (mostly) liberated from the state 25 years ago. Trains are frequent, clean and modern. The main railways are profitable.
At this point people someone’s bound to complain that Japanese trains are overcrowded. What about all those people pushers? Every time I’ve been in Tokyo (this was my fourth trip) I’ve tried to find them and haven’t succeeded yet. True, most people have to stand in the rush hour, and from time to time things get very uncomfortable but much the same is true of London too. And for the same reason: fare control which depresses the price and increases demand.
Yamanote Line train somewhere between Shinagawa and Shibuya 0730, Thursday 11 October 2012: