The Great Train Robbery

Swift takes a typically irreverent look at the latest Labour Party policy announcement - the renationalisation of the railways


It has been announced in the London prints, with great excitement, that a future Labour government, now regarded by our political scribbers as an inevitability, will renationalise the railway system.

This matter has been widely reported, mainly for the reason that solid political proposals by HM Opposition are – to say the least – thin on the ground. Actually being presented with a firm policy, with numbers and stuff, has the same impact on our scribes as the news that Napoleon had decided to cut short his holiday in Elba, and was heading for Paris, must have had on the Congress of Vienna.

Swift’s extremely erudite and sophisticated readers (he bows) will probably have already read any number of pieces explaining that either (a) this decision will return the railway system to an idyllic past where the trains ran on time, were cheap and clean, and in short, enabled the whole plot of Brief Encounter to have some of plausibility[1]; or (b) this is a step back from a potentially glorious future in which we will travel in Elon Musk[2]-designed carriages run by efficient private sector companies. (Admittedly with a day return to Manchester – say -  costing the thick end of a grand plus, which it is headed for already.)

However Swift is inclined towards a third view, which could be crudely summarised as that this decision will make no difference at all, whether implemented or not.

Should you, gentle reader, still be under the impression that the ultimate purpose of the railways is to offer you convenient and affordable transport across these Isles – and Swift is sure that your regular experience has already disabused you of this fanciful notion – you need to recognise that neither a fully-privatised, or semi-privatised, or partly (as now) a semi-public semi-private service will make the slightest difference to you.

So the big Labour announcement, itself given a handy five year period (in political terms, an entire era, like the Stone Age, or something else you no doubt weren’t taught at school) isn’t really news at all.

The reason? Because the stakeholders in the rail network are, in descending order of importance: the railway trade unions; the government of the day; the owners of rail lines, rolling stock and the maintenance of the physical system; and finally – and a long way back – you, dear reader.

For decades the rail trade unions have resisted change, other than to their emoluments (upwards). Considerable sums and associated benefits are paid to train drivers (Swift believes that the basics are beyond £40,000 per annum), who enjoy Sybaritic lifestyles from the public purse while even their underlings (for drivers have always regarded  themselves as the patricians of the system) don’t do too badly either. Remember these servants of the iron road retire promptly on pensions funded generously by…you can guess.

Such wild ideas as driverless trains on the London Underground – already tried and tested on a few lines – or trains without guards – pretty much unnecessary in today’s system, or more flexible working patterns, have caused prolonged industrial battles and disruption for passengers. They have not been implemented, and when the the Mayor of London was faced with resistance to them, he bribed his way out of the conflict.

The wonderment of all this, of course, is that since we all discovered the joys of working from home, the number of passengers has sharply declined. Mondays are quiet, and Fridays quieter. A rough estimate is that the total decline in passenger numbers is half. I repeat that, readers: half.

Yet this has apparently no impact on the mad economics of the rail system. Half the passengers, half the pay? You must be f***ing joke mate (Swift here attempts to reproduce the cheery argot of our contemporary sans-culottes, no doubt inaccurately).

So Swift has often pondered why our Tory administration seem unable to deal with this and come up with no answer.  The Labour solution is easier.

Will we return to the great days of nationalism.

Stakeholder one: the unions – will get what they want.

Stakeholder two: the government – will look like it is charge of something important.

Ministers will bustle, civil servants will write briefings for parliamentary debates telling ‘a good story’.

Stakeholder three – the remaining  private companies involved in providing the rolling stock– will blame stakeholders one and two for any problems.

And you, dear reader, will be stood shivering on the railway platforms of the nation watching the dreaded word ‘Cancelled’, appear on the board.

Safe travels.


[1] For Swift’s younger readers: This an old but rather good British film whose leitmotif of love on the train service relies on having faith in the regularity of the railway, and the passengers being also offered an affordable modicum of refreshment in a station café that does not resemble a crack den, nor is populated by the typical habitués thereof.

[2] Name used purely for illustrative purposes. Please do not put Swift on ‘X’ saying this.