A Botched Privatisation

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Half
an hour after the second aircraft struck the World Trade Centre;
the email was winging its way to Stephen Byers, Whitehall Minister.
The email said, "Its now a very good day to get out anything
we want to bury. Councillors expenses?" The next day as
the media feasts on the tragedy of 11th September, a
largely ignored press release on proposals for cutting local government
expenses is unveiled. The job is done and a controversial piece
of politics is buried under the rubble of the twin towers along
with the countless bodies.

The
email sender? Jo Moore, part-time advisor to Stephen Byers, living
up to the image of the amoral world of the spinmeister. Little did
she know that she had copied the email to someone who had recently
been sacked. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.

Naturally,
we wish to see her head roll for such a piece of crass insensitivity.
Naturally, we wish to see all such deceptive pandering to Statism
pursued as hotly as the U.S.A. is in the chase for Bin Laden.

Pleased
with this piece of one-upmanship, the next big item of news was
left until the day that the newsstands were buzzing once again with
the news of the first strikes against Afghan targets. I refer to
the re-nationalisation of Railtrack when it was put into receivership
on 7th October with debts of several billion pounds.

When
the British railways system was privatised in 1996, I applauded
this wise move towards free market, customer driven services. What
I was not so sure about was the decision to sell off the management
of the entire track and signalling system under the banner of one
company. This stock flotation earned nearly 2 billion for the government
but had transformed a socialist monopoly into a pseudo-capitalist
monopoly.

I
say "capitalist" but the truth was that the government
rail watchdogs never ceased to interfere and make their influence
felt. Add to this the State subsidies and rescue packages amounting
to over a promised 1.5 billion and we can see that this was more
like a quasi-socialist organisation in the making.

The
downfall for Railtrack was ultimately the diktats of the government
concerning the chronology of recent rail disasters such as the Paddington
rail crash in October 1999, which left 35 people dead. The public
concern fuelled by media hype given to these events ensured that
Railtrack would be "persuaded" by the government to embark
on a multi-billion upgrade program they could ill afford and which
the quality of service did not require.

How
short peoples' memories are — especially those who are convinced
of the dogma of public services. Looking at a chronology of rail
deaths in the 5 years after rail privatisation in 1996 and the years
before it is revealing.

In
the seven years between 1988 and 1995 (the first year of privatisation),
55 people died in rail crashes. Since privatisation six years ago,
the number is 53 people. The numbers are roughly the same and if
you discount the most recent disaster in Selby, which killed 10
people, then less people have died per year since privatisation.
I discount the tragedy of Selby because it involved a car falling
off a bridge onto a railway track into the path of an oncoming train.
There is nothing any rail company could reasonably do to prevent
such an event.

Two
other things also have to be noted. Firstly, thanks to free enterprise,
passenger numbers have increased significantly since privatisation
and this has an effect on average casualty figures. Secondly, there
is the unsurprising revelation that when privatisation was announced,
British Rail significantly cut down on rail track and signalling
budgets. The obvious intention was to let the privatised companies
bear the cost — a cost which proved to be too much.

The
media have played a large part in this saga and their obsession
with rail disasters is uncalled for when it is realised that far
fewer people lose their lives in train accidents than in car accidents.
Over three thousand people die in road accidents annually; the figure
is in single digits for trains. Indeed, when the statistical analysis
of deaths per kilometre of track versus kilometre of road is properly
done, then rail travel still comes out far safer.

So,
we conclude that rail travel is perfectly safe and the mass media
hysteria which surrounds them should be ignored by both politicians
and corporate executives.

In
the light of all this, what should have been done prior to privatisation?
Certainly, an enforced monopoly living off political subsidies was
not the solution. The best solution would appear to have been to
let those rail franchise operators who actually share tracks pay
for the maintenance of them in a proportionate manner.

After
all, they are the ones who have the primary interest in the resource
and would have the greatest concern as to its state. This was amply
demonstrated in the aftermath of the Hatfield disaster of October
2000, which led to Railtrack forcibly closing moneymaking tracks
to perform emergency repairs on known, fractured lines.

No
tracks means no trains means no passengers means no revenues mean
no profits. I think the rail operators have a definite interest
in contributing to well-maintained tracks.

As
it happens, this competitive, free market solution is politically
non-expedient. The government has proposed that a non-profit making
organisation be set up to take over the track management. This is
obviously a sop to the "people-before-profits" brigade
who have been howling dogmatically since the last fatalities.

Unfortunately,
forcing the rail operators to maintain the tracks is currently not
on since their franchise agreements do not legally bind them. We
are stuck with a state-subsidised monopoly for the time being and
I can only hope sense prevails when the franchises come up for renewal
in the years ahead.

October
13,
2001

Roland
Watson [send him
mail
] writes from Edinburgh, Scotland.

©
2001 LewRockwell.com

Roland
Watson Archives

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