Thursday, July 09, 2009

National Embarressment

After all I've written about privatisation over the years, I couldn't let this latest fiasco on the London-Edinburgh line pass without comment. In case you haven't picked up on the story, it would seem that National Express, having taken over the franchise from GNER a bit more than a year ago amid much triumphal hoo-ha, have now decided that they don't want to play anymore. So rather than offloading the franchise to another private-sector business, as any grown-up corporate entity would do, they've dumped the whole ot on the government, and walked away with impunity to go back to what they do best, clogging up the nation's motorways.

Cleverly enough, the government themselves inserted so many get-out clauses and provisoes in to the deal when they struck it, so desperate were they to keep the privatisation bandwagon rolling, that they are seemingly powerless to impose any kind of sanction on the company. Now, I don't actually blame National Express for taking the public for a ride (or not, as the case may be). Like the MPs expenses row (currently broadening in scope to include certain publically-funded media organisations and soon, no doubt, the entire world except the Daily Telegraph), they seem to have merely played the system. Who can honestly say that they wouldn't do the same? They are, after all, in the business of turning a profit. But, again like our Right Honorable chums, the system was clearly rotten to begin with.

What bugs me is not that they drove a hard bargain, but that the people on the other side of the table felt they needed to make these kinds of concessions to push the deal through. If the franchise was really so unattractive that businesses wouldn't touch it without a Get Out Of Jail Free card, then surely it shouldn't have been on the market. Were the government really so desperate to get transport costs off the public balance sheet that they had to offer a ludicrous and frankly uncompetitive deal to ensure they got shot of it? It's like putting a bit of sticking plaster over a festering wound - a quick fix but never a lasting one.

So does this herald the beginning of the end for privatised railways and perhaps even the return of British Rail? Unlikely - I don't see where the'd get the money what with propping up the banks, and I'm sure someone will come along with a suitable bid soon enough. But it will be interesting to see if this temporary nationalisation resluts in a better service. I'm off to Leeds neext week so I'll have the chance to find out first hand. Suffice it to say, I'll be taking a packed lunch.

Friday, July 03, 2009


Perhaps the biggest surprise of London's week in the Sun - bigger than Andy Murray losing at Wimbledon, bigger than the girls at work getting sunburned at lunchtime and then expressing surprise themselves because "we're not on holiday or anything", bigger even than Tim Henman's reasoned analysis of Michael Jackson's "status in pop history" - is that the trains didn't have the central heating on. As I have observed before, the heating on the trains seems to follow a calender all of its own, not bothering much in the colder months of Winter, puffing away enthusiastically in Spring and generally achieving peak performance sometime in May. With such an idiosyncratic sense of timing, I went into this week half expecting the trains to be full of hot air during my commute. But happily common sense seems to have prevailed - or perhaps the heating just broek down. Not that it hasn't been hot on the train. It most certainly has. Due to a couple of important business engagements, I've actually had to wear suits a couple of times this week, and let me tell you it was not pleasant.

Actually I avoided day one of the big scorcher, by going to Wigan on Monday. I hadn't ever been before, so that's one to cross off the list. I was half-tempted to follow the road to Wigan Pier, but there was traffic queueing to get on to the roudabout so I went to Skelmerdale instead. On Wednesday I had arrnged to go to Olympia for a trade show, so I had to put the suit on again along with the shoes that make a funny noise when I walk. It was uneventful, as these things go. Why are all these big conference venues so hard to get to? You could travel to the Midlands in not much longer than it takes to get from Marylebone to Kensington. And for Kensington High Street, one of the most fashionable and, let's face it, pricey, retail areas of London solely dependent on the District Line is surely someone's idea of a bad joke.

I decided on the way back across town to avoid the Tube, mindful of media speculation about the brain-meltingly high temperatures it might reach. I got on a bus, and what an interesting journey it proved. I went and sat up top, and settled down for an hour-long journey across London, passing Harrods, Harvey Nicks, the Albert Hall, Hyde Park, Marble Arch and Oxford Street, with the result that I now know WHY it takes so long to get to Kensington - it's really quite a long way. I had always put it down to the inefficiency of the transport network. I did manage to pick the only seat on the top level on to which the Sun shone directly, which was a shame and didn't do much for my perspiration levels. But at least that meant that, when I did get on the train home, people seemed not to want to crowd me.

It's been so hot this week that I even resorted to wearing a pair of shorts on Thursday. I'm not really one for hot weather, although after last Summer's gloom it has been a nice change. But can we got back to dull and overcast with occasional Sunny spells now, please?