Insider Story: All Aboard The Gravy Train!
Hello readers. By way of brief introduction, I'm an employee on the railways, it's my job to look after thousands of passengers every day, in a safety critical role. I've been in the industry a while, long enough to get an interesting view from the frontlines. So here's an insider story I'd like to share with you...
Every week day on the Norwich branches to Lowestoft and Yarmouth, a train runs which is a literal metaphor on wheels for the failure of fragmented franchising and it has us all in fits of laughter, because I guess it iss better to laugh than cry! Following an operating incident, a three coach Class 170 train, or 'unit' as we call them, was taken out of service. Greater Anglia run such a bare bones franchise that they had no spare unit available to supplement the gaps that the non-availability of this train being taken out of service created. So they replicated what was already being done to plug a shortage of trains on the Lowestoft and Yarmouth lines, where aged and polluting Class 37 locomotives from the 1960s, which pull 1970s 'Mk.2' coaches run 'top and tailed', with a locomotive on each end of three coaches: 3500hp for around 110 tonnes. A bit of overkill and a massive waste of fuel in layman's terms, a single '37' could work 900 tonnes if required. The only good thing is that at least the seats line up with the windows in the old carriages!
This second train could have been avoided, considering Greater Anglia gave away several 'surplus' units to other operators at the start of their original franchise, which would have previously been pressed into service, so it's a bit of an own goal. And any cost savings have surely offset by the thousands of pounds it has cost them to hire the extra locomotives and rolling stock. Take a few steps back, and it gets worse.
The diesel-electric locomotives on this train are the newest in the country, called Class 68s. But these weren't built in Britain, don't be daft! Successive governments have successfully destroyed the entire world-leading research and development and manufacturing wings of British Rail. So they were ordered and built in Spain. But they're sort of owned by you and me, because they are owned by Direct Rail Services (DRS), a government arms-length train operating company (TOC) created to pick up the slack of BR's old 'departmental' division (responsible for all sorts of odd workings and special trains) because private companies can't be trusted to run high-risk Nuclear Flask trains from plants like Sizewell in Suffolk to Sellafield processing plant.
So the DRS locomotives (indirectly owned by us taxpayers) are also driven by DRS train drivers (sort of employed by us, too). Points mean prizes, so that's one point to Spain and two to Britain! But the guard (at least we can be thankful we still have them!) is employed by Greater Anglia, a subsiduary of Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch state operator. And they're the ones ultimately responsible for operating the train, too. Two points to the Netherlands and another to Britain for the Guard!
The coaches, confusingly painted in 1980s British Rail 'Blue and Grey' colours are owned by a private charter operator Rivera Trains, and normally used for nostalgic railtors. So that's a point to Britain! Well, only sort of. Because those coaches, just like a lot of the rolling stock in the 1990s privatisations, found their way into 'Rolling Stock Operating Companies' (ROSCOs), which was one of the biggest unreported financial scandals of the 1990s. Just like the public flotation of Royal Mail, this stole millions from you and me and all other taxpayers and let slippery Eels like Peter Wilkinson, part owner of ROSCO Angel Trains make a mint overnight.
...was one of the biggest unreported financial scandals of the 1990s. Just like the public flotation of Royal Mail, this stole millions from you and me and all other taxpayers...
Wilkinson just happens to be a Department of Transport director, pushing Govia and Southern Rail to provoke the RMT Union into strike action. Did anyone mention corruption or conflicts of interest at the heart of government!? Sorry, I digress...! So that's one point to the greedy, er, British, venture capitalists! Hurrah?
And to finish it off, the Spanish built, British owned and crewed locomotive, which pulls the historically taxpayer-shafting owned carriages, operated and crewed by the Dutch state railways-employed Guard, runs on Network Rail infrastructure. Which is, thankfully despite attempts to privatise it, still owned by us since 2004 after the last private company went bust (Railtrack) and thanks to accounting rule changes in 2015, is now no longer a QUANGO 'prviate' arms-length company, but technically a nationalised industry too. We didn't know that the Conservative government was into nationalisation, but I think neither did they!
What's the score and who wins at the end? It's not you or me, or anyone else who needs the passenger railway to provide a public service for sure! Unless you're a Dutch taxpayer, a Spanish train builder or an investment manager with investments in a ROSCO or TOC, you're out of luck. The solution? Immediate, progressive-politics inspired nationalisation is required right now, with the UK Rail network run under a radical new model which can put all employees and passengers at the heart of the system and prevents future governments, the Treasury and corporate greed screwing the whole thing for another twenty years.
All aboard the gravy train! Toot toot!
This article was first published in the NOR4NOR 2017 newspaper. The Class 68 hauled trains ceased operation in Autumn 2017. Class 37 hauled trains continue to operater at the time of republishing.