East Coast nationalised


altCompared to the banks, it's pretty small beer, but now the government has nationalised the east coast rail franchise, National Express has given up on it, and it has been excitingly re-named East Coast, and the equally excitingly, the transport minister Lord Adonis is now running it. Otherwise, it's the same timetable, prices and routes.

This is, of course, exactly how rail franchising is supposed to work. Services are put out to tender, and are run by private companies, but if one of them comes a cropper, the government steps in until another provider can be found. The only trouble is that the government has been stepping in rather a lot lately. Not because the private sector is inherently flaky, but for a couple of other reasons. First, the government screwed the operators down too hard on price. Many of them already had made considerable investment in the rail industry and were not prepared simply to write it off. So they paid over the odds. Then boom turned to bust (thanks, Gordon) and their figures started to look a bit sick. Second, the government drew up its franchise agreement so ineptly that when the chips are down, it is far cheaper for an operator to fold than continue operating a service. Step forward, the taxpayer. Frankly, it's no way to run a railroad.

Also in this weekend's news, Stephen Byers, the transport minister who bankrupted the private rail infrastructure company Railtrack, saying it was too inefficient and expensive – only to replace it with Network Rail, which is even less efficient, completely unaccountable, and forty times as expensive – is stepping down at the next election. Thank goodness. There are very, very few people I take a dislike to, even if I disagree with them politically. But this over-promoted polytechnic teacher and political careerist is one. Roll on the next election, I say.

Dr Eamonn Butler's book The Rotten State of Britain is now in paperback.