The little contretemps over Southern Rail services this week is leading to the usual calls for the renationalisation of everything. We do not think that this is the solution, no, we don't. However, The Guardian has been asking its readers what they think and many of them think it is.
At which point we were very taken by this comment from one of those readers:
To speak in a language that the "captains of industry" on here will understand. When deciding on how to run an operation you must look to best practice. And for the railways, this means best practice globally. It is quite clear that in Europe alone, it is France, Germany, Spain (for example) that run nationalised railways, and have excellent, fast, clean, modern trains that are also good value for money. We should look to emulate these countries when it comes to our national rail infrastructure. And not continue, what must be considered, one of the most absurd systems currently in use today.
Very well, let us do so. And which is more likely to do that? A profit seeking approximation to a free market or a nationalised industry run along political lines? We do have something of an answer to this. It's in this excellent piece from John Band:
When BR built the original Thameslink route in the 1980s, it shifted its trains to driver-only-operation, because train guards’ role in opening doors and dealing with breakdowns was now redundant. As weekend services grew across British Rail's network, driver contracts on some routes were shifted to a seven-day roster, so that they no longer relied on voluntary overtime. But on most of the network, including what is now Southern, this didn’t happen – and privatisation further reduced the incentive for difficult changes.
This becomes a big problem when routes with different practices and contracts get merged into one. Thameslink drivers operate the doors; Southern mainline drivers don’t operate the doors. Southern mainline trains always carry guards, while Thameslink trains don’t. Given that these will soon be the same rolling stock, operating the same services, this situation is ridiculous and needs to be resolved.
Well, we disagree slightly that privatisation reduced the incentives - we seem to be seeing those incentives in play right now. However, this is the answer to that Guardian comment. That Southern is not even attempting to impose globally best practices. It's just trying to extend the current best practices within its own network to the whole of its own network.
Which isn't, we think, something that is going to be aided by renationalisation.