Sunday, 22 April 2018

A good word for British Railways

A good word for British Railways Twice recently in discussions of the privatised railway, once on a comments section in the Daily Mail and once in a discussion of something completely unrelated organised by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, one of the rare supporters of privatisation has contributed the same sentence. It is a statement, not a question, made with the intention of terminating all discussion of the issue. It is, “You don’t want British Railways back,” spoken in a tone of voice, or written in a tone of print, that implies that only a certifiable lunatic would want British Railways back. Rachel Johnson (no relation) said it again on Any Questions, on 18 May 2018. You can listen to the programme at, the question is at 38 min 44 sec, and Ms Johnson gives her opinion at 40 min 21 sec, ‘I don’t remember the days of British Rail with huge fondness.’

British Railways, aka British Rail, was the organisation that ran the nationalised railway in the UK from nationalisation in 1948 until privatisation between 1994 and 1997.

Well, no, I didn’t like everything about British Railways, but as Shakespeare said, the evil that nationalised industries do lives after them, the good is oft interrèd with their bones. For Ms Johnson, the worst thing about British Railways was the smell of the seat cushions — this in an era when polyurethane foam cushions were dangerously flammable and burned at high temperatures.

Here, therefore, is my cut-out-and-keep guide to what to say when you are in a meeting and somebody says “You don’t want British Railways back.”

In 1948, British Railways operated about 6,685 stations and about 15,000 route miles. In contrast, Network Rail now operates 2,563 stations and the franchisees operate 10,072 route miles (so say and Wikipedia.) The number of passenger services has fallen by about one third since 1948, although I can’t find the exact figure anywhere.

Fares were lower. You arrived at the station, bought your ticket and went onto the platform to catch the train. It was as simple as that. The fare structure was far simpler than the structure in use today and everybody understood it. These days neither the railways’ own staff nor their ticket vending machines know all the dozens of different fares for the same journey on the same train. It is often possible to save money, sometimes a lot of money, by booking two tickets for different halves of the journey or by getting off one train half way to your destination and completing your journey on the next one. I don’t recall any British Railways ticket which had to be booked several weeks in advance. Between 1995 and 2013 the single fare from London to Edinburgh rose by 134% and the single fare from London to Manchester rose by 208% (BBC News report) while inflation over the same period was 66%.

As an example of how insane the fares structure has become, I mention Prof. Martyn Evans, who held a first class ticket from Birmingham to Durham and left the train early, at Darlington, and was charged a £155 excess fare. (BBC News report.)

British Railways and its successor British Rail trained their drivers to drive all the locomotives that they were likely to encounter on all the railway lines they were likely to drive along. In contrast, the privatised companies train their drivers to drive the trains that they operate along the routes that they serve. This sounds like a small quibble, but it isn’t. When a line is blocked, for whatever reason, in British Railways days the train usually took an alternative route and carried on to the same destination, causing minimum inconvenience to the passengers. Now, when operator A’s line is blocked, and operator B serves a line which might have served as a diversion, the driver from operator A does not know operator B’s line. (‘Knowing the road’ is vital on the railway: the driver has to know where all the platforms, level crossings, speed limits, engineering works etc. are.) But there is no point asking Operator B to provide a driver, because operator B’s driver does not know how to drive Operator A’s train. Every driver has to be trained on every type of locomotive that he (she) drives. Passengers are therefore ordered out of Operator A’s train and into buses, causing long delays, serious inconvenience and late arrival.

British Railways used to deal with late arrival by holding connections. Although they did not always delay an outward train until the inward connecting service had arrived and passengers had time to change trains, they did schedule guaranteed connections at principal stations. Private operators try instead to recover from delays by allowing trains to go through scheduled stations without stopping. I think that British Railways never did that. Skipping stops, as has been pointed out, reduces the ‘fines’ charged to the operator, while being staggeringly inconsiderate to passengers. Guaranteed connections, in contrast, reduced the inconvenience to the passenger.

Passengers boarding a privatised train are now used to jam-packed carriages offering standing room only. British Railways suffered this problem too, but less often, because British Railways ran longer trains. The service from Edinburgh to the west coast, for example, consisted of a locomotive and ten or twelve coaches. These days, Cross Country operates a railcar with four or five coaches. British Railways coaches were more comfortable and better designed than the coaches of privatised trains. The toilets worked. The seats lined up with the windows. The Mark 2B carriages, built in Britain by British Rail Engineering, were probably the most comfortable coaches ever operated on British tracks. And even if you were a second class passenger you could use the restaurant car. Virgin Trains, operators of the London to Edinburgh service, withdrew restaurant service from second class passengers. It is difficult to see why a restaurateur would want to exclude potential customers in that way. Later, Virgin Trains withdrew restaurant cars altogether.

As well as withdrawing restaurant cars, the privatised operators have also withdrawn Motorail services as well as most overnight sleeping car services. The sleeping cars are due to be upgraded, which the franchisees will use as a pretext for a huge fare increase.

On the subject of first class carriages, British Railways usually allowed holders of second class tickets to sit in first class carriages when overcrowding required it. The private operators never offer this simple courtesy. If you hold a second class ticket, you’re a second class passenger, and you stay with your own kind.

A few random thoughts conclude this article.

  • British Railways cost the taxpayer less than the privatised railway does. Subsidy to the railway has increased threefold since privatisation. The cost of running the railway has more than doubled in real terms since 1995. (Action for Rail.)

  • British Railways ran a long term electrification programme, giving faster and more reliable journeys, particularly on short distance commuter runs. The franchisees have not continued it. The Ministry of Transport recently cancelled electrification of the Great Western main line west of Maidenhead.

  • British Railways negotiated one of the first minimum wage agreements with the unions of the day. The minimum wage for a week’s work was £4 4s. In contrast, in an age of gruesome unemployment and poverty, the franchisees are plagued with staff shortages.

  • British Railways gave names to the crack expresses. The Flying Scotsman is probably the best known train on Earth. Virgin Trains reduced it to a one way service leaving Edinburgh at 05.30. Recently they appear to have abolished it. A search for Flying Scotsman on National Rail's web site finds no hits.

  • At a handful of stations on the main line, British Railways left the equipment which steam locomotives need in order to re-fuel en route. In a staggeringly mean gesture which surely cost more than it saved, Network Rail has removed it, affecting the steam hauled services which enthusiasts run.

  • Lastly, but not leastly, British Railways chose the elegant, simple Gill Sans typeface for its notices and painted its main line passenger coaches in a simple, dignified maroon livery with the beautiful British Railways wheel, lion and crown roundel, in contrast with the artless daubs which adorn the franchisees’ vehicles.
  • Do I want British Railways back?

    Yes. Chances are, so do you. The Government, knowing that three-quarters of the electors who expressed an opinion favour the re-nationalisation of the railway (You Gov,) does nothing about it. Democracy, it appears, is a wonderful thing — when it suits the suits.

    If I am right and British Railways provided a better service in 1948 than the franchisees do now (not a faster service, but a better service,) there is in my view every justification for calling a halt to the gravy train and re-nationalising the railways without compensation. If someone smashes your bicycle, you don't pay them for the smashed-up wreckage. Bring back British Railways.

    28 April 2018: And another thing. After the Beeching Report, a procedure was instituted whereby British Railways had to conduct a public inquiry before closing a passenger service. The privatised operators have found a way to circumvent the process. When they want to close a station, they simply tell the trains not to stop there, except for an occasional train once a month or so. This is legal and means that stations can be closed without any consultative process. The occasional trains have become known as the ‘parliamentary’ trains. For example, Teesside Airport station is at present served by one train a month, in one direction.

    19 May 2018: And one more other thing. British Railways developed the Advanced Passenger Train. National Rail has, so far as I am aware, no project aimed at developing faster or technically advanced vehicles.

    8 June 2018: Curly Sandwiches. Someone on Question Time started the customary paragraph about you wouldn't want British Railways back, this time because British Railways served stale and curly sandwiches. It is easy to forget that modern sandwich packaging was invented by Marks and Spencer in 1980, three years after British Railways was sold off.

    Monday, 8 January 2018

    Jacob Rees Mogg nails his colours to the mast

    I see that Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg has advised Theresa May and Philip Hammond, the leaders of the Conservative Party, to “bury their differences and get the Government back on track.” He said the new Cabinet should focus on delivering core Tory values. (Read all about it at Rees Mogg warns May and Hammond to bury their differences, Daily Mail, 7 January 2018.)

    How right Mr Rees-Mogg is. We need a man who will champion the traditional Tory values: massive unemployment, low wages, high immigration, the worst schools in the world unless your parents are rich, rocketing train fares and stratospheric energy costs, unaffordable housing, a derelict Health Service, the end of industry, the abolition of old age pensions and no tax on the toffs.

    We’re all looking forward to it, Mr Rees-Mogg. When can you start?

    A happy New Year to any readers I may have.

    Monday, 25 December 2017

    On the main line

    When I was at school, it never occurred to me that in my old age I would see public buildings transformed into soup kitchens in order to feed the starving.

    If you won’t believe it until you see the MP4 video proving that it happened at Euston Station, one of the big London termini, click this link.

    I am both revolted and very sad that we have an elected government which simply does not care about the misery in which some people are living. Asked about this sort of outrage, the Tory mantra is “We don’t have a magic money tree.” That just shows the power of a false analogy: it does not take a magic money tree to make the poor better off, it takes common sense and an understanding of economics and, perhaps, sociology. Oh, and it also takes money, which the Tories have in unfeasibly huge amounts. In truth all three political parties have collaborated in reducing us to the awful state in which we now find ourselves. All three have had the chance to make the dramatic changes that are now vital. It isn’t just the Tories’ fault, although they happen to be holding the hot potato this week.

    In other news, Ms Kate Middleton, a member of the Royal Family who does so far as I know no work of any kind, went to church today wearing a coat that, I am assured by the newspaper, cost £3,000. I don’t understand why she needs it. She doesn’t need a coat as costly as that unless, unknown to anybody, she spends her nights lying on a park bench and unable to sleep.

    Tuesday, 10 October 2017

    A letter to the Taxpayers' Alliance

    The Taxpayers' Alliance is a right-wing group with whom, most of the time, I disagree politically, but I do find their tales of woe and waste highly amusing. I don't donate to them. Today I received a letter from them telling me that they have a new campaign manager, Mr Harry Fone, and he wants me to write and tell him which campaigns I think the Taxpayers' Alliance ought to conduct. Here is my reply.

    Thanks for writing.

    Thank you for inviting me to suggest campaigns which the Taxpayers' Alliance should become involved in. There are many such campaigns, as Britain is in a desperate state thanks to completely incompetent management, but the most urgent ones I can think of are

    (a) Double the old age pension, all social security benefits and the income-tax-free allowance. Make the bosses live on the average full time wage paid to their workers. This will at a stroke (remember that?) end the recession, which is caused by government meanness and a greedy and selfish toff class, and has nothing to do with debts or productivity.

    (b) Ban all imports from China. Quite apart from deliberately collaborating with a foreign government that is trying to destroy the British economy by exporting goods below cost price, this will more or less eliminate the imports of the products of child labour, forced labour, convict labour and slave labour. No Chinese goods work properly and all of them fall to bits after a couple of weeks of normal use. A ban on Chinese imports would also stimulate the manufacture of British goods of quality.

    (c) Requisition all unoccupied houses, second and subsequent homes, investment properties, buy to lets and illegal sub-lets and sell them to homeless families for £10.

    (d) Re-nationalise the railways without compensation, slash fares to one tenth of their present levels, abolish second class, fix the toilets, bring back the restaurant cars and line the seats up with the windows.

    (e) Hang criminal motorists if they kill or endanger life. If they were drunk at the time, hang them twice.

    (f) Abolish the Royal Family except for one monarch, one monarch's consort, and one heir and trainee. Move homeless families into the Royal Family's mansions and palaces except for one palace in London and one in Scotland. All the rest of the sponging toffs should either get a job or claim the standard rate of social security like everybody else has to.

    (g) Bring back the full student grant sufficient to pay tuition charges, accommodation, books, equipment, food and fares, as it was not all that long ago. Do away with the (imaginary or actual) need for billions of foreign speaking immigrants who have skills that British kids can't afford to learn any more.

    (h) Abolish the Conservative Party. They do no good of any kind so why should we put up with them? Abolish the Labour Party as well because it's the same as the Conservative Party.

    (i) Abolish the European Union. The Europeans should learn English and then apply, and pay a huge fee, to join the British Empire. (I owe this obvious idea to David Frost and Anthony Jay.)

    Best wishes and thank you again for giving me this opportunity. I hope to see you making the case for all the above within the next week or two.

    Sincerely, Ken Johnson

    Sunday, 17 September 2017

    A place of beauty

    A place of beauty Thank you to the gardeners of Edinburgh District Council Parks Department who have planted a small patch of land with meadow flowers, in between the children's swing park and the football pitch. The result is beautiful, and it reminds me of the way I think the countryside ought to be. For a few yards, the walk along the footpath from Kilncroft Side to Inglis Green Road is in bloom. Do walk it.

    1 May 2018. At nearby Hailes Quarry park, the rough grass has been enhanced by several — about five — large beds of daffodils. The result is beautiful. I can walk past these beds on my way to catch bus number 30.

    Friday, 8 September 2017

    What Duracell and Ever Ready don’t want you to know

    Following the appearance of this short article in the Daily Mail dated 7 September 2017 on how to recharge your mobile phone when there is no electric power, How to charge your phone if the power goes out, I feel entitled to publish the following short article on the same subject from the little known Journal of Physics and Mobile Communication.

    Four engineering students from the university of Tempinbol, in the little known east European country of Tiurma, have discovered a replacement for conventional mobile phone batteries.

    Cut a slice 1½″ × 2″ of British potato. Soak it in a mixture of vinegar, honey and cold tea for three months. Prick holes in both sides of it with a pin. Wrap it in a clean British cabbage leaf and put it in the hole where the phone battery used to be.

    Once in place it will power your phone for up to 100 years and what’s more every call you make with it will be free.

    Sunday, 4 June 2017

    A song about the Office of National Statistics

    According to the eleven o’clock (in the morning) news on Radio Four today, unemployment has fallen yet again.

    Tune: We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line. Acknowledgements to Michael Carr and Jimmy Kennedy.

    Once I got a first class math-e-matics degree,
    Then I was on the dole.
    Now I’m back at work and in the right job for me,
    I invent the figures that appear on TV!

    I’ve joined the Of-fice of National Stati-sti-tics,
    Where I work things out and often get them wrong,
    It’s where they pay me to make up all the vital facts,
    As I blithely go along.
    Tell me the figures should be big or small
    And I’ll tell you what you want to hear,
    I’m in the Of-fice of National Stati-sti-tics,
    And the answer’s crystal clear.

    I’m at the Of-fice of National Stati-sti-tics,
    Is your manifesto costed through and through?
    Do you wonder who’s leading the opinion polls?
    ’Cause I haven’t got a clue.
    All these improvements in the way you live
    Are supposed to raise your self esteem,
    I’m in the Of-fice of National Stati-sti-tics,
    Where I fall asleep and dream.

    Downstairs in the basement there’s a hardworking clerk,
    Oh, what a rigmarole,
    Guess how many citizens are looking for work,
    Scribbling it on paper while he’s going berserk,

    I’m at the Of-fice of National Stati-sti-tics,
    Will your pension be enough to stay alive?
    Have we paid back the debt or just the deficit?
    And how many beans make five?
    Is the exchange rate going to rise or fall?
    Tell me, how long is a piece of string?
    And then you take away the number that you first thought of,
    Yes, we know that sort of thing.

    I’m at the Of-fice of National Stati-sti-tics,
    I decide on what goes up and what comes down,
    I just pluck all the numbers out of empty air
    ’Cause the abacus broke down,
    When people ask me what the future holds
    I can cast the runes and draw a graph,
    I’m in the Of-fice of National Stati-sti-tics,
    I can have a damned good laugh.

    Ken Johnson