Trains should be electric – but privatisation is derailing progress

8 Mar|Alex Gordon

Train driver Alex Gordon traces the railways’ malaise back to John Major’s government

In February the new UK railways minister, Jo Johnson, decided to banish diesel-only trains from Britain’s rail network by 2040.

Instructing rail executives to draw up plans by autumn this year to retire the estimated 29 per cent of trains currently powered by diesel engines, Jo Johnson told them, “If that seems like an ambitious goal, it should be and I make no apology for that.”

Ambitious? His audience was doubtless fairly relaxed about the timescale. Mostly, their ambition is to be pottering around golf courses in the Algarve by 2040 depleting their pension pot.

If Johnson is to be believed then his boss, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s decision last summer to curtail electrification of railway lines from Cardiff to Swansea, London to Sheffield and Manchester to Leeds (thus requiring a £5.7 billion fleet of brand new electric trains built at public expense to be retro-fitted with diesel engines), may rank alongside HS2 and renewal of the Trident nuclear programme as one of the great white elephants of the present decade.

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins with (one hopes) tongue inserted firmly in cheek, promptly cracked off a eulogy to the age of steam. “Steam is the secret gold mine of the railway” he claimed improbably. ”Leisure and so-called heritage railways have continued to expand, and their appeal is simple. They run steam trains. Diesel is dying – let steam trains ride to the rescue.”

Sadly for satirists, this strain of revivalism is almost impossible to pull off nowadays, although you wouldn’t know it from some Guardian readers’ outraged responses to the article. Jenkins was roundly castigated for living in the past and for thought crimes against the environment.

The well of nostalgia for a Victorian golden age has been poisoned, not however by global warming, but by a fragmented and dysfunctional, privatised railway system. Could anyone with a straight face prescribe the glories of Victorian engineering as a remedy for the Dickensian conditions of overcrowding on commuter trains?

Back in 1993, when the brothers Johnson were still chucking bread rolls at waiters, PM John Major made his totemic contribution to British political oratory with that speech entreating the Tory party to love Europe. One imagines him turning to Norma after sitting back down, saying “Well, I think that went remarkably well. Don’t you dear?”.

“Fifty years from now” he promised, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’” …

The nostalgic rhetoric presented a sentimental, clichéd version of Britain as an English shire frozen in the late 1920s, while embracing European Single Market rules to break up state-owned monopolies such as railways.

In the same year, John Major’s government dismembered British Rail, creating the byzantine welter of contracts between railway owners, contractors and operators of privatised freight and passenger trains – and a cartel of train leasing companies – overseen by a vastly expanded bureaucracy of lawyers and consultants, underpinned by increased public subsidy naturally.

BR’s fleet of mainly diesel-powered trains and locomotives valued at almost £3 billion was hurriedly flogged off in November 1995 for £1.8 billion to three management buy-outs, which soon cashed in to the tune of over £750 million. By 1997 all three leasing companies had been re-sold to banks for £2.6 billion – costing taxpayers a cool £1.1 billion in lost proceeds.

The unregulated cartel culture has stymied train building in Britain, as investment in new rolling stock collapsed by 38 per cent post-privatisation. When rail season ticket holders today cavil that the price they pay for standing-room-only from Milton Keynes to Birmingham exceeds the annual mortgage repayment on a family home, they are paying the price for the grand larceny of rail privatisation.

Satire or not, Simon Jenkins’s evocation of the steam age nostalgia today cannot help but echo John Major’s dystopic vision. A lone steam train hissing in a station platform, or huffing magnificently across a viaduct, is aesthetically thrilling, but practically irrelevant to the quotidian problem of mass, public transportation. Compared with any other source of power generation, coal-fired steam engines are also more dangerous, exceptionally dirty, and bloody hard work. In fact, not for Idlers at all.

But here’s an idea – a form of power more venerable even than steam locomotion, yet with a distinctly modernist aesthetic exists. In 1800, a quarter of a century before the first steam locomotive pulled a train from Stockton to Darlington, Alessandro Volta generated electricity in a chemical reaction.

Electrification is still the most efficient, practical and cleanest energy source for mass transport the world over. Its adoption in Britain as a replacement for the ageing fleet of diesel-powered trains however has been forestalled by a dysfunctional rail system in hock to private interests.

Let us consign cloying sentimentality about the steam age to the past, and shunt nostalgia into the sidings – along with the cheap, volunteer labour of heritage steam railways, of which Simon Jenkins appears to believe there is an inexhaustible supply. Forward to electrification, comrades!

Alex Gordon drives trains for a living and is secretary of the RMT trade union’s Paddington No.1 branch. He also moonlights in his spare time as Chair of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School in Clerkenwell.