8 August 2015
The Guardian (p.33)

Andy Burnham, whose politics seem not so much a movable feast as a packed lunch, seeks to appear leftwing. But bringing the railways under state control is not a radical policy. It would bring us into line with the European norm, and it is consistently supported by majorities in opinion polls.

Ellie Harrison, an artist and teacher, runs the Bring Back British Rail campaign from her flat in Glasgow. Its Facebook page has more than 100,000 likes. “We have support from across the spectrum,” she says. “One of the administrators of the page was a Conservative candidate in the general election. He didn’t win because the seat was in Scotland.” She identifies many motives among the likers. “For some it’s the ridiculous cost of season tickets. For some it’s the environmental thing. And then there’s a nostalgia for British Rail.”

I suppose British Rail might seem to embody conventional railway romance. In the early days, it was keen on retaining steam, and it continued the charming tradition of naming trains (eg The Elizabethan, 1953). But then, the hard-headed Dr Beeching became chairman of BR, which entered a period of mortification as competition from other modes of transport increased. It built stations resembling airports, and introduced the dour new livery of blue and off-white (“blue and dirt”). The umber-and-cream Brighton Belle was subjected to this colour scheme before being killed off in 1972. “We can’t live on nostalgia,” ran the BR press release.

While I myself don’t live off nostalgia, I do take regular draughts of it, and I know why I’m nostalgic for BR. First, my dad worked for it, and I had a “privilege ticket”. Much of my boyhood was spent on the east coast mainline, irritating my fellow passengers by eating crisps in a Mark 2 first-class compartment of the kind occupied by Michael Caine in the opening credits of Get Carter. The clip’s on Youtube. Check out the antimacassars, and the silver service in the dining car.

Whereas some rail experts of my acquaintance – such as those at the Campaign for Better Transport – favour more local control over railways, suspecting that a revived BR would be a lumpen beast, I am attracted by railway unity. Our railway is more expensive for being fractured, and much more inelegant. I don’t want garish trains proclaiming the individuality of a private operator. This seems gratuitous given that those operators are not in genuine competition with anyone else. Somebody from First Group once explained to me that their trains had the revolting colour scheme of purple, blue, pink and white in order to attract motorists in traffic jams on adjacent roads. (I notice that First Great Western is replacing this livery with something close to the green of the old Great Western Railway, and if First Group did this with its other trains, and all its buses, Britain would become a more beautiful place overnight.)

I suspect that for most people “the train” is a generic phenomenon. They don’t care which private company runs the line and they would be excused for not knowing. I recently read the Wikipedia page for two “brands” of the privatised railway, Thameslink and Great Northern. It opens with some disambiguation, explaining that “Thameslink” here is not to be confused with the route called Thameslink, or the privatised company of that name, which existed between 1997 and 2006.

With that out of the way, we can proceed to the following: “Thameslink and Great Northern are the brand names used by Govia Thameslink Railway on the Thameslink and Great Northern routes of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise previously operated by First Capital Connect.”

It’s as if the privatised railways want to embroil us all in the Kafkaesque world they inhabit. This paper recently carried an article about how some of the lowest fares on the east coast route had “disappeared” under the new operator. Train fares ought not to be things that appear and disappear, like ghosts, but whenever I buy a ticket at King’s Cross I take a crib sheet with me, so complicated is the fare structure.

The privatised companies have “made a difference” by marketising fares in a way I can’t understand, by serving me free coffee (until I feel ill) if I’m in first class, and instructing their train managers to tell me their names, which I don’t particularly want to know. Are their customer service skills the reason rail use is at its highest ever level? I doubt it. We travel more because we travel more, hence a major investment in the railways, the bulk of which comes from an elusive body called Network Rail, which shifts identity according to actuarial whim, but is currently in the public sector. If the government bundled this in with train operators, and nationalised the latter, it might get the credit for being pro-rail, which it very gratifyingly is.

We would have before us a comprehensible entity that would be easier to manipulate – so as to bring closer integration with other transport modes, for example – and easier to discuss. As a nation we would regain use of that organ that invented trains in the first place, the loss of which is increasingly often lamented: the British “railway mind”.

Andrew Martin