Tuesday 2 February 2010

Brown's Britain - Anything Goes

In my last post, a fantasy item, the idea that moneyed people would be buying up large enclaves in order to establish personal territories, more or less their own lordships, I thought might be way over the top. Later looking around the web I came across a piece by Nick Cohen in “Comment Is Free” in the “Observer” of Sunday 31 January entitled “It's all aboard the gravy train for Network Rail bosses. While European train users get exemplary service, British rail bosses splash out on Highland estates”. In the past I have ranted on about Fantasy Island Economics but never thought to see them confirmed so absolutely.

Iain Coucher, the chief of Network Rail has just purchased a large estate in Argyll fit for any ancient Highland Laird, or more recently the rich and powerful business men who followed them in the 19th and 20th Centuries. As Cohen points out, Coucher, the new Laird of Keills, is none of these, he is to all intents and purposes a civil servant who heads a second rate railway board. Moreover he doesn’t exactly run the trains. His organisation takes care of the signalling, the stations, the tracks and the bridges.

Cohen goes on to say: “It isn't a private company whose managers are accountable to shareholders and independent directors. On the contrary, it receives £4bn a year of public money, and its entire £28bn, five-year investment programme in track, stations and signalling will come from the taxpayers. However, when he created it after the collapse of the privatised Railtrack, Gordon Brown was determined that it would not be a publicly owned either.

As slippery as ever, Brown wanted to engage in Enron accounting and keep the railways' debts off the government accounts. As important as his desire to play games with the national debt was his fear of right-wing newspapers accusing him of being an old Labour socialist. Instead of restoring the former nationalised British Rail, Brown set up Network Rail. As his adviser, Baroness Vadera, explained at the time in an email to ministers, the organisation would be so complex the tabloids wouldn't understand it.”

Others are bound to wonder what exactly it is when it does not fit in to any of the regular and regulated forms of public and business organisation. To invent a new word perhaps one way of describing it is a “Cronygarchy”. It certainly seems to be free of ordinary laws and regulations if some of the reports on the behaviour of senior management are to be believed. It is claimed that 155 payouts with gagging clauses amount to £950,000 have been made. The nature of interwoven payments around Network Rail and connected financial and consultancy firms in which senior people have interests add to the confusion of direction and policy.

When the media take an interest in this, as did The Mail On Sunday, then Network Rail called in legal strike force of Schillings, one of the most expensive firms of libel lawyers in the world. Politicians, naively believing that £4 billion p.a. of taxpayer money might make Network Rail accountable to either Ministers or to Parliament have been told, more or less, to shut up and go away.

Also £5 billion of taxpayer money goes to the private companies, who have their own particular advantages and arrangements. One is to relieve them of the old style ways of dealing with accidents to passengers. It is possible now for potentially fatal accidents to occur and to avoid any investigation or inquiry. The Rail Accident Investigation Board do look at a range of operational matters and cannot avoid dealing with bad smashes which entail deaths and injuries or the more spectacular events at level crossings, but many other accidents are brushed aside.

There has been publicity given already given to the £500+ million support to firms experiencing difficulty and the suggestion that 96% has gone to companies in Labour held constituencies. Less obvious is where the rail money can go. It was striking that in the recent introduction of High Speed Trains on South Eastern all the improvements involved services going from or via Labour held districts. Those that only went through constituencies held by other parties lost 30% of their services causing serious problems for many commuters, many of whom are low paid, never mind all the poorer or disabled travellers who depended on the services.

As we used to say in the parcels office when yet another ancient decrepit coal truck derailed and disrupted services, “What a way to run a railway”.

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