Dec 2007 - Let's end the 'Punch and Judy' ownership debate

01 June 2013

WHEN I was at a meeting with rail minister Ruth Kelly last month, I sensed a reluctance from the various ‘advisors’ to my raising the question of rail ownership and franchising with her. It was almost as if it would be ‘bad form’ to mention a subject on which the minister and the union might have opposing views.

Personally, I can’t see the point in going to a meeting and not saying what we want. I may as well not turn up. And if ministers are somehow ‘protected’ from a view the government might find distasteful - they are entirely justified in doing nothing about it.

ASLEF does have a major difference with the government on the question of franchising. In a nutshell this government is intrinsically attracted to the ‘free market’, to private capital and to liberalisation. It is a fact that one of its core values and regular mantras is ‘private enterprise is vibrant, public services are inefficient’. It’s what they believe.

I think this is nonsense. I think the process of franchising is a disaster for everyone except bloated investors who wouldn’t be seen dead on a common railway. I see the vast sums of money that slide into the pockets of lawyers and accountants every time a franchise is up for offer. I see the pointless duplication of work caused by having 103 pension schemes in a single industry. I see money tossed away on new corporate identities for these five years fly-boys. I see a lack of vision for the railways as a whole: the perfect example being the state of the art former Eurostar station at Waterloo standing empty, mothballed at a cost of £500,000 a year – while the rest of the Waterloo stations are overcrowded.

At the moment, however, the rail ownership debate is conducted in the style of a Punch and Judy show or an early Christmas pantomime. We do not have the objective evidence on which to base a genuine discussion.

That is why we have proposed that the government keeps one franchise in public hands, allocating it exactly the same amount of money that it would have given to a private concern. If the government is not prepared to concede this, it is for one reason only: it is convinced that it is wrong.

*As I was writing this, I happened upon various glorious statements of intent from Andrew Haines, the new Chief Operating Officer of Great Western which operates in my old patch when I was a district organiser. New franchises, new promises! I wish the company well, of course – but perhaps the Man from Merthyr – and franchised companies in general – should bear in mind the optimistic noises from Steve McClaren just 18 months ago. And if it doesn’t turn out as well as advertised, like Mr McClaren, I hope he doesn’t try to blame the players!

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