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.


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