Norm Geras quotes Guardianista Phillip Pullman:
The more I travel on the squalid, run-down, gimcrack, unreliable, privately owned [sic] trains we have now, with their filthy toilets and windows you can’t open in the heat and penny-pinching knee-room, the more I look back with admiration at the nationalised days of British Railways, which seem a haven of democratic comfort, dignity and respect for the passenger.
Oh dear. He is, of course, right that the trains are privately owned. He is also right that privatisation has been a failure. However, he also, presumably wants us to believe that the private ownership was the source of the failure (it wasn’t), that things were so much better before (they weren’t) and that therefore the state should run the railway (it shouldn’t).
Mark Ellott has been reading up on the Amagasaki rail crash:
Whatever errors there are in our management systems in the UK, at least we do not require drivers who make mistakes, such as overrunning platforms or even passing signals at danger to undergo what the Japanese Railway calls “day-shift education” where senior staff berate the employee and where they are made to write reports reflecting on their errors. This is nothing more than ritual humiliation and several members of staff apparently have been so demoralised they later committed suicide.
The implication being that the driver in the Amagasaki crash preferred to take a ludicrous risk (one that ended up killing him and 100 others) rather than face “day-shift education” again.
But there’s something rather odd about this. As Mark says this is “prehistoric”. In other words it’s been going on for some time, probably decades. But (to the best of my knowledge) nothing like this has ever happened before. When Brian Micklethwait and I had a chat about this the other day he concluded that: “They don’t make Japanese like they used to”. Which tends to corroborate a story I linked to the other day plus bits and pieces of anecdotal evidence I’ve picked up over the last couple of years.
Japan is changing.
[Incidentally, I think after JR West and others have gone in for their usual heavy-duty navel-gazing, we’ll see a massive effort to introduce the sort of technology that is already being used on the Shinkansen bullet trains and which automatically slows a train that is travelling too fast.]
She who must be obeyed aka Natalie Solent has been badgering me for a couple of days to say something about the snuffing out of Railtrack (the former rail infrastructure company) seeing as the whole issue has once again re-emerged - this time courtesy of the ASI Blog.
Natalie, your wish is my command.
But I will say this: I am not enjoying it. When writing about Railtrack I feel rather like Lord Palmerston on the Schleswig-Holstein issue who said something like: “There are only three people in Europe who understand it. Of those, one is dead, one has gone mad and the other has forgotten it.”
To be blunt the whole history of rail “privatisation” is so fiendishly complicated and compromised that to discuss the death of Railtrack in isolation is close to pointless.
To my mind, the question that really matters is: is Railtrack an institution that free marketeers should seek to defend? Was it our baby? Should we take responsibility? My answer is no.
Let me explain. I am a libertarian. I believe in freedom. I want to see as little coercion in this world as possible. I want that principle applied to individuals and their property and to businesses and their property.
To that extent I believe that a business should be able to decide who it sells to, how much it sells and at what price. I believe the same freedoms should apply when it comes to buying from suppliers I believe it should be able acquire businesses in the same industry and (should the fancy take it) completely different industries.
But Railtrack couldn’t do any of these things. It was the state via the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (and later the Strategic Rail Authority) who decided which train operators would use Railtrack’s infrastructure. It was the state via the Office of the Rail Regulator who decided how much it would sell and at what price. It was the state, via the 1993 Railway Act that prevented Railtrack from buying up the train operating companies. It was the state (if memory serves) which foisted on Railtrack its maintenance contractors and the state again (again if memory serves) that signed it up to a commitment to rebuilding the West Coast Mainline - a project whose costs shot up from £2bn originally to nearer £10bn in the end.
Now, contrast that with the private Japanese rail company JR East. To the best of my knowledge JR East could contract out the running of its trains but doesn’t. It could contract out the maintenance of its tracks but doesn’t. It is under no contractual obligation to build or renew railways. Result? Profit and punctuality, comfort and reliability.
Free marketeers have to be careful not to fall into the trap of demanding perfection from market institutions. All enterprises are to some extent or other buggered up by the state. Even JR East is subject to far more regulation than the average newsagent. But Railtrack had so little freedom that (in my book) it wasn’t part of the market at all.
Iain Murray writes about rail infrastructure for the National Review. Iain has the advantage of having actually been there when the bodies were being buried and, so, is in a good position to claim that BR’s infrastructure was clapped out and that London Underground used infrastructure as a bargaining chip in subsidy negotiations.
Via Cold Spring Shops.
Dining cars to go?