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article imageOp-Ed: Taken for a ride - the truth about Britain's railways

By Alexander Baron     Jan 24, 2012 in Politics
Last night, a BBC Television documentary told the British public what it already knows: our train fares are the most expensive in Europe, and we get poor value for our money.
For those who can receive it, the latest edition of Panorama can currently be found here.
If there are two criticisms that can be made of this programme they are that at times it took a slightly frivolous tone, and that it didn't tackle the most important issue. The first can probably be excused on the grounds that if commuters don't laugh, they will cry. The programme spoke to some very high powered people including Margaret Hodge, the MP who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, and Sir Roy McNulty, the man who recently leant his name to a government report on the railways.
While there are valid criticisms about punctuality and delays, the elephant in the room was and remains why is the government - ie the taxpayer - subsidising private companies to provide a supposedly public service? This state of affairs is absolutely ludicrous, but none of those involved appears to see the anomaly.
According to the programme, the annual public subsidy paid to the railway is £4 billion. Last year, another source gave a slightly higher figure - after all, what's a billion or two when Joe Sixpack is paying?
One revelation made here was that Network Rail - the company that manages the infrastructure - was fined £14 million for three engineering overruns. The big non-question is: who paid the fine? Obviously the same people who will pay any fine resulting from the deaths of two teenage girls at an Essex rail crossing in December 2005.
Can the people who run Britain - including Margaret Hodge - be so stupid they don't realise that a fine is not a punishment if someone else picks up the tab?
There are really only three solutions to the ongoing problem of Britain's railways and public transport system. Either it should be run by private companies for profit with no subsidy - which would send fares through the roof. Or it should be made totally fare free as in the above modest proposals. We would probably see the governments of the world convert en masse to Social Credit before that happens. The third is to revert to the way it was before these sham privatisations, ie with the service being run by the government as under the old British Rail. As this latter is the only alternative that has a realistic chance of being adopted, it is the one for which the great British travelling public should lobby. The reality is that probably there will be no meaningful change, and both the taxpayer and the passenger will continue to be fleeced while paying for a substandard service.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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