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  • Writer's pictureNOR4NOR

Made Anywhere But Britain

Updated: Jan 13, 2018

If you’ve ever travelled on the branch lines of Norfolk, you’ve probably travelled on what is known in the industry as a ‘Scud’. Obscurely named after a clunky cold war soviet missile system, the name is really quite appropriate as they are also outdated and obsolete. These ancient and rattling machines, which were literally developed from putting a bus on a railway chassis in the early 1990s, are hardly a fitting advertisement for rail travel. Abellio Greater Anglia have tried to roll this turd in glitter in the way only privatised Train Operating Companies (TOCs) know best: give them a fresh coat of paint and update the corporate branding on the outside to look good from afar, but keep the old tired interior on the inside and save the pennies for the shareholders.

But the reality is that this old train is knackered. It should have been retired years ago and been replaced by a rolling programme of strategic national train renewals. But of course, such a thing doesn’t exist, because privatisation keeps failing to deliver the long term stability to allow strategic plans to be delivered or seen through to the end: the goalposts keep moving and belligerence on the part of the current Conservative Government means they keep propping up the broken system even when presented with a chance to change things for the better. Nationalisation is even a popular policy with their own supporters. Public ownership works, even in the franchising model. The publicly owned East Coast (Directly Operated Railways) franchise, created to keep the trains running when National Express walked away from their contract, paid £1 Billion back into the treasury between 2009 and 2014.

If there’s one thing the privatised railway is absolutely incompetent at, it is train (rolling stock) procurement, or in layman’s terms, building and buying new trains. The rolling stock is so old because for a multitude of reasons. In short there hasn’t been the steady influx of new rolling stock to replace worn out old stock. Britain is now operating the oldest trains in all of British railway history. As for the new kit, you need only look at the new Intercity Express Programme (IEP) trains being introduced on the Western and East Coast routes to replace the now forty year old HST125 trains to see how much of a mess we’re in nationally. Private Eye has criticised much of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI)-esque deals behind the IEP train programme, which because of a high degree of financial risk to private investors, means the programme is not cheap: an eye watering price tag of £2.7 billion for 500 carriages. And we’re paying for it too, that hard earned income tax you pay is effectively subsidising TOC profits and covering up for the failure of TOCs to procure new trains.

British Rail (BR) used to build its own rolling stock, had its own workshops and maintenance facilities and standard designs ensuring nationwide compatibility. BR owned the rolling stock and the maintenance facilities and had the benefit of cost savings that come with a natural monopoly, not to mention a world leading Research and Development department which made Britain a major exporter of rail expertise. All this went to pot when the railways were privatised by John Major’s Tory government, with the inevitable fragmentation and its natural inefficiencies, such as duplicated management structures and loss of natural monopoly.

"...not to mention a world leading Research and Development department which made Britain a major exporter of rail expertise.

Rolling stock got sold off to Rolling Stock Owning Companies (Roscos), who now own 92% of all trains in the UK and was one of the biggest under reported financial scandals of privatisation, as undervalued assets made Roscos an overnight fortune, much like the undervalued shares in the Royal Mail privatisation deceived you and me, the taxpayer, of millions. British Rail Engineering Ltd (BREL) was sold off, meaning that the building and maintenance of trains moved from a means of servicing a national transport system to another way for private finance and vested interests to extort profit from a public service. ‘Market forces’ and the ideological obsession with neoliberal free market ideas were ultimately responsible for former BREL facilities at York and Birmingham closing due to the uncertainty created over future orders in the post-privatisation era, thus decimating the British rolling stock building industry, which is why a large chunk of Greater Anglia's new 1000-carriage order of new trains will be built in Switzerland. The newest class of Diesel-Electric locomotive which was recently used to haul trains on the Norwich branch lines during a rolling stock shortage were built in Spain.

The inability of TOCs to commit to big capital expenditure in the volatile rail franchising market, combined with very weak national strategic direction from central government is partly why there has been such chronic under investment in rolling stock in East Anglia for several decades. At the extension of Greater Anglia’s franchise in October 2016, an impressive fleet of over 1000 new carriages was announced, 378 carriages being built in Switzerland at a cost of £600 million and represents yet another missed opportunity to rejuvinate British train building. But dig a little deeper and it’s more of the same – private finance investments profiteering from our real need for a public railway providing us a public service. Remember that firms like SL Capital Partners Ltd, who have invested in rolling stock for Greater Anglia aren’t likely to be motivated by philanthropic public service over profit! Each layer of finance, contracting and sub-contracting throughout the whole ordering and manufacturing process dictates a multitude of firms, all taking their slice from the cake. It makes the old BREL arrangement look fantastically simple and sensible, doesn’t it?

Whilst new trains are of course welcome in the region, it represents yet another missed opportunity. Like the many TOCs that are actually owned by subsidiaries of continental state run railways, rolling stock procurement now siphons away the opportunity to rebuild British manufacturing and prevents the diversification of our economy, which is essential for financial resilience in a time of over-reliance on the service economy. The IEP trains are built in Japan, then shipped over to the UK to be assembled like a glorified Airfix kit of parts at a factory in County Durham, then given the dubious title of ‘Assembled in Britain’. Oh how the mighty have fallen!

For anyone travelling on our rickety Norfolk branch lines, it will be two years before new trains arrive and in the meantime the gridlock continues on the roads and the railway still sits idly by, bumbling along just like it has done for decades. The branch lines of Norfolk are a hugely undervalued resource and a missed opportunity to get cars and lorries off the roads. It’s no wonder with all this fragmentation that ticket prices are so high, as everyone in the business tries to take their cut, and these high prices deter people from taking the train over the car, or bus. It costs £5.50 for a Yarmouth to Norwich return on the bus and for that you get a leather seat and free WiFi. It’s £10.30 on the train, and you get a ‘Scud’ with no leg room and no WiFi neither. When the new trains come, hopefully we’ll get a bit of legroom and the internet, but you can be sure ticket prices won’t be falling any time soon under the current regime. It’s time to think seriously how we organise our railways, and start thinking about providing a service for passengers, not a business for customers. Another world is possible.

Citations available on request.

Photo: Jeremy Segrott / Flickr Creative Commons License.

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