Dec 2008 - The runaway train...

01 June 2013

THERE used to be a children’s song about a run-away train. On reflection, that was quite positive news - because now we’ve got an entire run-away industry.

Certainly it’s running away from government. This was made very obvious last month when the new Transport Minister, Geoff Hoon, said he was in favour of electrifying the track. Only minutes later the Rail Regulator said he wouldn’t be doing any such thing. There seems to be some confusion here concerning the train driver and the oil-rag.

But this is only a domestic spat. The rest of the railway has run away over the sea – to just about every known part of the globe.

Some sections of what was once ‘British’ rail has popped over the channel to France. The Gallic company Keolis, along with Go-Ahead, runs Govia, who are responsible for Southern, Southeastern and London Midland.

Other parts of our railway system are controlled from the Netherlands. The Dutch state-owned railway NedRailways, in a joint venture with Serco, runs MerseyRail and Northern.

And then it’s off to the Far East to meet MTR, a company based in Hong Kong, that is, unsurprisingly, responsible for the Hong Kong Mass Transport System. Perhaps less expected is that, with Laing, it owns the London Overground network.

Runaway freight trains are also a frequent sight. The German state railway Deutsche Bahn AG owns EWS, while Freightliner’s owners are from further afield. Freightliner is the property of an investment firm from Bahrain.

The companies that lease rolling stock to British train operators have similarly run away. Last month came the announcement that Porterbrook Leasing has been sold. Its purchasers are a consortium led by Germany’s Deutsche Bank, and including Antin Infrastructure Partners, a fund run by France’s BNP Paribas. Angel Trains, meanwhile, was sold to an Australian consortium organised by Sydney-based Babcock and Brown.

So there we are. It’s not a runaway train we’re dealing with – the whole ruddy lot’s gone bar the track!

This isn’t meant as a jingoistic complaint. My point is that the British railway network is owned by a selection of owners, based at various points of the globe from Paris to Australia and all anxious to make a quick Hong Kong dollar or Bahraini Dinar. How much motivation do they have to provide an integrated, socially-motivated, reasonably priced rail system for the UK? Would that be nil, nada or none?

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