Saturday, 13 May 2017


It’s been over 20 years since John Major’s Conservative Government privatized the passenger and freight related parts of the then British Rail, after many years of under investment. While the infrastructure end of the railways, for the moment at least, remains in public ownership (or perhaps can more accurately can be described as remains under the control of a fairly indifferent state) the remainder is divided up amongst the ownership of private and foreign state owned railway companies.   

To be brutally honest, the rail network and the rail services that run upon it, without a public subsidy would be a far worse mess than they are at present. The desire of the Welsh Government to award the franchise as a not-for-dividend-profit has been thwarted by the Westminster Conservative Government  - which means that next year the franchise will be awarded on a dividend profit basis - so perhaps we should brace ourselves for rail service wise for more of the same.

The news that Arriva Trains Wales has run up a larger profit will bring scant comfort to rail passengers. The system of time-limited franchises, which was supposed to ensure good quality rail services, has since privatization largely failed to deliver a reasonably priced functional rail service. The Wales and Border franchise is currently run by Arriva trains Wales which is actually run at arms length by Deutsche Bahn AG which is a German railway company. Headquartered in Berlin, which is a private joint-stock company, with the Federal Republic of Germany being its single shareholder.

As a regular rail traveller I can watch (often in the relative comfort of non Arriva Trains Wales trains it must be said) the sun come up whilst trundling rapidly across the Gwent levels and regularly stand on Cardiff (Central) Station waiting for connections amidst the tantalising smells wafting across from the Brains brewery (at least when there is a South West or West wind). 

Many thousands of people commute to (and from work) in the south, I find that to be honest, aside from the occasional glitch (over running maintenance from weekends, periodic broken down trains, broken doors, point’s failures and cable thefts, etc) most of the time the system seems to function reasonably well – even if sitting down is not an option on the Valley Lines. Having lived worked and commuted in London (for some seven and half years) I find myself commuting by train again - on a good day I can make it from station to station (Newport to Cathays) in around 25 minutes (and that with one change) which is not too bad.

Other rail travellers are not so lucky, with rail franchise operators running services that ensure certain connections literally cannot be made, which is one way to avoid getting fined. This is not a satisfactory way to run a rail service, the key word here being ‘Service’. Obviously this state of affairs speaks volumes, especially as it fails to impact on the Westminster elite (I use the term loosely) as they, with a few honourable exceptions, tend not to travel by train very much save when they are trying to cultivate votes.

In much of our country trains a once cheap and reasonably reliable form of public transport is conspicuous by its absence, that not to mention costs and infrequent services deter actual and potential rail passengers. When you factor in the legacy of the Conservative and Labour rail service rundown and cuts in the 1960 and early 1970’s and excessive profiteering on the part of the privatised passenger franchise holders and much is explained.

Our country suffered particularly badly from rail cuts in the late 1960’s when Labour was in office under Harold Wilson, that and the pit closure programme that hit hard in the south and north east. The privatisation of British Rail, something that New Labour loudly boasted that they themselves would have done if the Conservatives had not already done it, was one of the latter significant more questionable ideologically driven batch of privatisations (between 1994 and 1997).

Our country’s rail region Wales and West ended up as Wessex Trains and Wales and Borders which at one point included the Cardiff Railway Company services which operated as Valley Lines. The franchise was then split into two separate franchises, which are currently run by First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales. Our current franchise was awarded to Arriva Trains Wales in 2003 and runs for 15 years, and will end in 2018.

Arriva Trains Wales is the only train firm covered by the Welsh Government’s transport remit. Any longer-distance services e.g. Swansea or Cardiff to Paddington are currently operated by First Great Western who have their fares regulated by the Westminster Department for Transport. Now while this may well be ancient history, it has implications for the way the railway franchises run how their profits are made and where they go. 

Despite the best efforts of New Labour and the Con Dems to reduce it, the franchise companies still receive a significant chunk of public (state) funding. Basically this has to be repaid to the Government before any profits can be made on top – hence the regular (and painful) rise in rail fares. It would make more sense for profits made to stay in the system rather than get hovered up to pay shareholders dividends and senior mangers fat bonuses.

The service we get actually reflects the disinterested priorities of the franchise holder rather than our national priorities when it comes to our railways and the services we need. Now, for once, Wales actually has some powers over our railways, the Transport (Wales) Act which came into effect in February 2006 actually gave the National Assembly the powers to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system, how much longer do we have to wait to see some vision?

Any vision is certainly not going to come from Westminster, back in March 2017, the Westminster Conservative government decided, whether by accident, design or as a result of a general indifference to Wales (and Welsh interests) not to devolve control of that portion of Network Rail to the Wales but to retain it in London. It makes me wonder whether after the forthcoming Westminster election is concluded whether Network Rail is going to be privatised?

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