Friday, January 09, 2009

The Gravy Train Terminates Here

Of all the various voices that provide announcements on Britain's railway stations, my favourite is Phil Sayer's, as heard at Birmingham New Street. And right now, I have one of his announcements swirling round my head;

"The next train to arrive at platform 4b is the gravy train from Privatisation. This train will terminate here. All change please, all change."

I have no doubt that today's news of 300 job losses at Southeastern heralds the start of yet another bout of poverty pleas from the members of the Association of Train Operating Companies. That such pleas will be, what's the technical term... oh yes, bollocks, goes without saying. Unfortunately however, there may be an unlearnt lesson from the credit crunch waiting to bite us all on the behind.

Much as I dislike Comrade Bob Crow, I can but agree with his analysis of Southeastern's position; I should think most businesses in Britain right now lie awake at night dreaming of 13% revenue growth (heck, the way things are going some of them probably really do lie awake at night dreaming of being spat at in the face, but here endeth the pop culture reference.)

Southeastern's answer to all this is very revealing, because what they blame is "reduced passenger journey growth". So the problem isn't that passenger numbers are falling, or that fares are going down; it's that, at a time when fares are going up, passenger numbers aren't going up fast enough.

Or in other words, it's not that they're making losses, it's that they're not making big enough profits.

I'm sure the economists will tell me that such behaviour is entirely normal and proper, and they may not be wrong. But this is something more than that. The original case for privatisation depended on massive passenger growth and as a result, the operating companies have been able to promise bigger and better profits for years. Now, with the economy in general failing to deliver passenger growth as it has previously and with the railway infrastructure unable to cope with the number of passengers already in the system, delivering on those promises is rapidly becoming impossible.

So, a company with a culture of sky-is-the-limit growth faced with a broader infrastructure that can't deliver its fundamental product fast enough to meet its promises? Doesn't that sound an awful lot like Northern Rock?

The biggest difference is that, with the train operating companies, HMG already has its hand in its pocket and a history of jacking up subsidies at the first hint of collapse. Still, if the culture in the train operating companies really is so rotten that they can't cope with running run-of-the-mill solvent businesses rather than glorified Ponzi schemes on wheels, yon Scunner Broon may find the dreaded N-word (i.e. nationalisation) coming over the hill, and with great big pointy teeth to boot.

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