WHENEVER I AM OBLIGED to join the ranks of the WILLIEs – that’s the name for people who ‘Work In London, Live In Edinburgh’ – I usually eschew the airlines and take the train.
The main reason I do this is that whenever I go to the airport I am treated as a potential terrorist – forced to take off my belt and shoes, get both myself and my luggage searched and scanned, and then queue in a long line for an uncomfortable seat in a cramped cabin.
I much prefer the relatively relaxing alternative of sitting on a train for an undisturbed four and a half hours, during which I can catch up with my reading while being served a cooked meal.
As a rail journey is city centre to city centre it ends up being only about an hour longer than the hassle of flying, and if the flight has delays, which is not uncommon, it can often be just as quick.
Unlike most of the other WILLIEs I only have to do this journey a couple of times a month but since I have been in the habit of doing so for over 40 years now, my rail service has been delivered by respectively (public) British Rail, (private) GNER, (private) National Express, (public) East Coast Rail, and finally (private) Virgin Trains East Coast. The trains haven’t changed much over this time but unfortunately along the way somewhere the beloved ‘silver service’ dining car has gone missing.
Virgin East Coast are now pulling out of the service after admitting that they cannot pay the £2bn+ that they had pledged in order to win the franchise. This is the third time since privatisation that various commercial operators have failed to operate a profitable service and have handed back the keys.
The underlying service is basically a profitable one and while it was in public hands from 2009 until 2015 it returned revenue to the exchequer, so surely it must be time to look for a new model.
You don’t have to be a shareholder-owned company to run a successful commercial enterprise. A while ago I was a director of Channel 4 TV, which is publicly owned but operates competitively and effectively in the UK’s mixed broadcasting marketplace – a job which it has done very well for nearly 40 years.
And a great many of our railway operators are also publicly owned ... they’re just not owned by the British public. Abellio, which runs ScotRail, is owned by the Dutch government, Arriva, which runs CrossCountry, by the Germans, and Keolis – which runs Southeastern and London Midland – is controlled by France’s SNCF.
But we do have some successful publicly-owned transport businesses.
Lothian Buses is owned by Edinburgh and the other three Lothian Councils. It runs the largest municipal bus network in the UK, a high quality service with a fleet of modern, efficient, wheelchair-friendly, buses. In Newcastle, the Metro is owned and operated by the local transport authority Nexus – it was taken back into public ownership last year after the authority was dissatisfied with Deutsche Bahn owned Arriva, because of poor performance.
So why don’t we get the existing excellent public transport businesses in Lothian and in Newcastle to jointly bid to run the East Coast franchise?
We would get a transport system democratically responsible to the cities that need them most, and any profits made would be returned to the benefit of our local economy.
You never know – we might even get the silver service dining car back.