New trains are on the way – but we don’t need a change to the way they’re run
- Credit: Archant
Now we know that the first of the new fleet of trains to be introduced by Greater Anglia over the next 18 months to two years will come into service within the next few weeks.
The Office of Road and Rail has agreed they are safe to be introduced and that is great news for the region's travellers - although shiny new trains won't necessarily change the entire dynamic of rail travel in the region.
Because, as I've said many times before, new trains are only one element in the equation and as long as they have to run on outdated track and signalling full transformation of services cannot be achieved.
And the problems we face in getting a decision on whether to upgrade rail infrastructure does show clearly why a wholly-state owned rail industry would be bad for travellers.
It is right that rail infrastructure should be publicly-owned in the same way that roads are publicly owned. The privatised Railtrack was a disaster and lead to scrimping on maintenance and ultimately the horrors of major rail crashes.
But most (not all) privatised rail operators have been successful. And while the model clearly needs major change after problems on the East Coast Main Line and now growing fears over pension provision for staff, returning train operation to a monolithic nationalised company would not be good for passengers.
The privatised companies with limited competition have expanded the market for passenger rail travel massively since their arrival on the scene.
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The number of passengers has more than doubled from where it was at the end of BR - which had presided over 50 years of falling numbers with an overall aim managing the decline of the industry.
And I cannot for a minute believe that a nationalised BR would agree to replace every train in East Anglia with brand new units.
I know there are those who believe, for ideological reasons, that all railways, water, electricity, telecommunications and gas services should be provided by the state rather than individual companies.
Personally I don't have an ideological take on this. I just want services to be provided as efficiently and cheaply as possible. That was the attitude we saw from the last Labour government - from the likes of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Ed Miliband.
What worries me about having major services like this run by the state is that you see different arms of government competing with each other for a finite resource - money.
You end up with an upgrade to Ely North Junction competing with a new hospital wing for cash - and both projects have to dive through bureaucratic hoops before the government can reach the only decision it sees fit (build the hospital and patch up the junction for the minimum amount possible).
Then the supporters of nationalisation will say: "Ah, the private companies put up fares to pay their shareholders."
Do some research. Fares went up in real terms far steeper under BR than they have under private companies because governments from the 1940s to the 1990s saw anyone dumb enough to travel by train as a suitable target - and passenger numbers fell.
Over the last 20 years there may have been fare rises, but demand has grown steadily. That must tell us something.
The franchising model does need to be re-evaluated. Ministers (from all parties) have been too quick to look just at the money offered by bidders and haven't looked hard enough at the sustainability of many bids.
Different routes need different criteria from franchisees (it's no coincidence that the last three franchisees on the London to Edinburgh route have failed despite running nearly-full trains).
And finally, don't run away with the idea that shareholders are all super-rich whizzkids.
A large proportion of shareholders are people like you and me whose pension funds are invested in the stock market to make as much money to make us as comfortable as possible in our old age.
I'm not sure I want my pension investment grabbed by the government for purely ideological reasons - which could force me and millions like me to lose my income in later life . . . forcing me to turn to the government's social security safety blanket to compensate for a meagre proportion of my losses.