One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Trains, post, buses and.....planes?

A few days ago, sitting on a comfortable, punctual and cheap Italian train heading for Rome and comparing it to the shabby, slow, privately-owned and operated and ruinously expensive British network, I asked myself why the Italian state-run train system manages to do things that we in Britain can't seem to manage.

Don't start with the "At least Mussolini made the trains run on time" jokes, either, because he's been dead sixty years. It happens in France, too. For some reason, a state-owned and operated railway system works to time, provides a service that's well within everyone's budget (a 200-kilometre journey cost me the equivalent of a fiver), and doesn't break down or stop every ten minutes. On British trains, you can't depend on arriving at your destination within twenty minutes of schedule.

Sure, the Italian system is subsidised: the cost of my ticket was so laughably small that there's no way that passenger revenues could maintain the system. But isn't the whole idea of the private sector to get providers to compete with each other to providew the best service at the lowest cost?

Actually, forget the original question. What's more interesting as a thought is "what services should the state provide for"? What things do we, as humans and as citizens, need? And what services should the state guarantee to us?

Clearly, access to food, shelter and health should figure high on the list. The ability to get to our place of work and to communicate should also be there. In other words, those things that are essential to our existence. And for its part, the state should probably own or control those services which are essential to its continued existence.

So I'm thinking about transport again. What kinds of transport, though? Road transport seems a bit excessive. I mean, a vast majority of us own cars, that is, our own means of getting around. But we don't and can't own the roads, the infrastructure on which our cars operate. So the state should be responsible for roads.

Buses are a public service, that allow us - if we don't drive - to get to our places of work, to shop, relax, visit, etcetera. Likewise, railways and underground: we can't own the trains or the thousands of miles of track they require. But we need them as well just as we need buses.

What about air travel? Probably not, I think: people who travel by air aren't doing it out of necessity, but out of luxury, the ability to do so. Business and holidays went on long before there were airplanes, too.

How about postal services (and this in an age when postal services are dwindling fast)? A state-owned postal service can guarantee services to the entire community, not just those parts of it that are more profitable. If you live on an island in the Hebrides, you want to know that your post is going to get to you. Anything better than the normal post - couriers, delivery companies - is a luxury, but the basic delivery of communcations sould be guaranteed.

And this raises another interesting point. Having a state-run service, be it trains or post or health, guarantees that the service will be delivered to all citizens, regardless of distance or circumstance. It means that the state assumes responsibility for that service. How many times can you remember a private-owned company ceasing to provide a service because it just wasn't profitable any more? Or because they went bust? The state can't just cease operations; it has to deliver.

Some of these services are also things that help guarantee a state's security. A health service, for example, ensures a healthier population, which can work more effectively and therefore sustain the state through paying its taxes. A state-owned rail network ensures that in the event of emergency or war, that resources can be directed to the right place at the right time. A state-run postal service ensures that the government can contact individuals when necessary.

I can give you an example of what could happen otherwise: in World War Two, when the Germans invaded the north of France, there was no quick way to get French troops to defend the area. One of the generals in charge of the defence had to resort to commandeering every taxi cab in Paris to transport troops to the front. Not only did that cost more than trains, but it was a lot slower too.

I wonder if the UK government, back in the days of Thatcher's privatisations, thought to include provisions in the sell-off agreements that ensured it could re-assume control of essential services in time of national emergency. Otherwise, are we going to see mobile phone companies humming and hawing when the government tells them it needs to commandeer the networks to deploy emergency services throughout the country? "Well, we'd like to help, but we've got this huge promotion going on at the moment for free ringtone downloads....."

Come back to basics again: water, rubbish collection, street cleaning. These things should not be farmed out to private sector companies that work for profit. As soon as the bottom line is threatened, services get cut back and people get laid off. How many times do you read about a new chairman taking over the running of a company and announcing that to boost profits, he's going to slash the workforce?

Let's face it, some things shouldn't be subject to the rules of the market. And that includes the very things that sustain our lives.


At 9:27 PM, Blogger Minerva said...

Particularly pertinent as the Northern line is out today until the end of next week...


At 1:35 PM, Blogger Cocaine Jesus said...

Living in an age that I am being told is the greates time of financial growth that this country has ever seen, I get slightly pissed off when I travel by train in the UK.
I had to visit a potential client in London. Harlow to Liverpool Street. Trip there. No problem. WAy back the trip should have been 40 minutes and took 1 hour ten!!!


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