Tuesday, August 16, 2011

all change, please

Many moons ago, my blog about the railways drew very strident conclusions from broad-brush assumptions. Hey, it's a blog, and that's not exactly uncommon.

My default position has always been largely in favour of competition and private investment in the railway industry - since John Major's government pushed through the Railways Act, there has been a notable and undeniable increase in investment for rolling stock, track repairs and new stations. Commuters on the rat-race to their office-spaces may still be cramped in their carriages, but it's against the backdrop of record customer numbers overall, healthy profits for all those from management level up, and occasional splurges in engineering work and stock renewals across the country. British Rail was not utterly useless; neither did it cost the taxpayer so much money as the fragmented privatised industry we endure today.

This is not a complete U-turn. Maybe a slight reverse; the fabric on which the initial privatisation model was sewn clearly put the long-term health of profits over the long-term needs of passengers. Today, the TOCs which do least are rewarded most: highest fares, highest subsidies, lowest customer satisfaction. And yes, "customer", having long since stopped being "passengers".

I'm a lifelong fan of the railways - young frequent user for wanderings and now older commute to work type. Those weekends I choose for groundhopping and the like rely on trains taking the strain (or in the case of the away trip to Howden, trains and buses and Metros, though that relaly is another story). Consequentially, bemused doesn't cover my reaction to news that fares will increase again for most passengers, especially the increasingly rare 'walk-on' customer. Neither Labour government, nor Coalition today, dare tackle the £4billion cost of keeping the railways running. Phillip Hammond, current Transport minister, struggles to maintain any kind of credibility with his "investing in the future" drivel; when Northern Rail's faithful are forced onto 1984 spine-shakers for the want of any kind of investment in the future, every additional four-quid on fares a week is keenly felt. Labour are going on record with their "too far, too fast" cuts agenda rubbish. I'm taking no lessons in pious hand-wringing from the Party which pretended to put aside £500 million for station improvements which didn't exist.

Little wonder the age of the "walk-on" passenger is all but gone. Like the airways before them, TOCs now see no profit (and therefore, no point) in attracting people who can't afford to book tickets in advance. Romantic ideas of a modern railway fit for all, affordable to many, seem depressingly delayed. Presumed, cancelled. Wrong kind of governance.

Whilst train companies enjoy bumper profits, massive salaries, and huge packets of money from the taxpayer, the other big ticket item in the news rolls silently off the running sheet and down the agenda. England's riots will cost a mere £100m to repair. The quantifiable cost of the troubles is one serious hit - the cost to peoples lives is anyone's guess.

This makes the effect on peoples attitudes all the more important to gauge. So why are politicians goading judges into showboat sentencing? Is it important for the United Kingdom to have prisoners whose crimes would barely trouble Iran's religious elite? Using the Serious Crime Act to throw in gaol the organiser of a water-fight? Or the Facebook users whose arranged gathering may not have existed? For four years?

If Theresa May - whose stock is now falling rapidly - has any kind of legitimacy, she would tip-toe back into the Home Office for some serious one-woman-against-one-keyboard interaction time. Area-wide curfew? Increased powers of arrest? Of detention? I thought all this had been done away with, after the great LibDem successes against IT cards and the DNA database.

What the apolitical riots represented was the desire to break away from relentless police-state mentality - Labour's stock in trade. More CCTV! More PSCOs! No hanging around in groups of 3 in the light of the chippy window, SCARPER! To increase and tighten police presence in assumed known trouble spots will only make those sick of society even less willing to co-operate. May has made the same mistake every authoritarian predecessor would receive the warmest applause. She is failing to remember the difficulties inside the most tricky department. Fighting disenfranchised youths with thousands more police officers hanging around makes me - us all - feel far less comfortable, far less safe.

Both the 'talking points' down the Crickerer's Arms - the railways and police reform - centre eventually to the persons view on their own Englishness. As a rule, we don't complain. Unless, of course, our tolerance and patience were to suddenly snap over the injustices on both sides of these commonly discussed controversies. Let us not be priced out of our own public transport (would that it were, etc.). Let us not exchange the British way of consensus policing for the unjust politicised State Uniformed Brigades of our closest European neighbours. "The French take their police's behaviour and attitude as a given," said one man on the radio over the weekend. "Britain has always enjoyed a public face to their coppers."

Indeed so - but let us not forget the issues with cost, with caution, with due process. The railways cannot justify big-ticker, Beeching-creep, small lines closed when the profits don't add. Let's not allow May to introduce the kind of civil liberty hate so enjoyed by the increasingly right-wing Blairite sect

Tomorrow, I will walk to work, the full 6 miles, as I have been doing knowing that my monthly wage is taxed out of all reason every day, and that it's still possible for our politicians to see just the wooded area of 'headline justice". Oh for a platform alteration there...