It seems like decades ago that the murine John McDonnell stood up in the House of Commons and pledged to re-nationalise the railways, returning us to days of curled up cheese sandwiches, being forced to set up home in sidings outside Reading station for two weeks and timetables that appeared on 'Most Read Fiction' charts. Covid-19 has a growing number of side effects, one of which appears to be taking us back in time to days when things were even worse, the latest example being a Government run rail network which pretty much everyone who remembers the days of British Rail would include in their list of very bad ideas.
However, the Department for Transport, run by the hardly credible Grant Shapps, is on standby to nationalise more railway lines within days if it fails to agree a new rescue deal with train operators hung up and dried by the effects of the Coro ... blah, blah, blah. For those who stand on Doncaster station in an anorak taking down numbers of trains that look absolutely identical, and who sadly know about these things, the Emergency Measures Agreements of £700 million per month to rail companies set up in March, seeking to underwrite their businesses when no-one was travelling anywhere, was never going to be anything more than the shortest term of solutions, and it runs out on Sunday (20 September).
Mr Shapps is holding detailed negotiations with the train companies for a successor scheme dubbed 'ERMAs', but Andy's train journey between Birmingham and London last Wednesday on which he could have thrown a handful of dried rice around his carriage and not hit another passenger signifies that the problem is just another which appears to be too big for any solution.
The Department of Transport has become the 'Operator of Last Resort', and already runs the Northern franchise and the Easy Coast Mainline franchise, and is bracing itself to take over other lines if their operating companies refuse to sign up to the Government’s new proposals. Do we really want civil servants running major arterial transport links, when those who only know the transport business aren't able to run them? There isn't even a 'Yes' option on that one.
The offer on the table is designed to keep the industry going before a longer term move away from the franchise model that has been in place since the railways were privatised in the mid 1990s. Ministers have offered 'take it or leave it' agreements that will see the management fees paid to train companies cut from their previous 2 per cent of revenue. It isn't popular. The franchises currently at greatest risk are TransPennine and South Western Railway (both run by the First Group) and Greater Anglia and C2C, and their operators have been tied to a railway line with a train fast approaching in the far distance and we are all watching in black and white to see who blinks first. Observers say it will go to the wire, but autumn is coming and leaves may fall on the line below that wire. Who knows what will happen.