Children’s stories can be great allegories for our times, if only you know where to look. In Troublesome Engines (1950), book number five of the Reverend Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine series, the big and powerful engines like Gordon, Henry and James feel overworked so they go on strike. The Fat Controller, aka. Sir Topham Hatt, breaks the strike by buying in a new engine. It was revealed this week that the government is lining up civil servants to fill in for striking border agency staff.
Sir Topham Hatt used to be known as the Fat Director until James the Red Engine (1948). When the Sodor railways were nationalised to become part of British Rail, he was appointed Controller and given a baronetcy. Back in January, the government nationalised British Rail’s successor, Network Rail, and over the summer the company’s chief executive, David Higgins, received a knighthood.
Except in one respect there, I’m telling a bit of a porkie. What the government really did in January was put Network Rail’s enormous £23.8 billion debts back on to the public books. Network Rail’s net debt has risen to £25.7 billion in the space of a year. The company is profitable, albeit decreasingly so. But while those profits remain in the company, the debts are backed by the taxpayer.
This situation matters because the new transport secretary, Justine Greening, has this week asked George Osborne to consider softening rail-fare rises in the new year.
Ticket prices are expected to increase by an average of 8 per cent in January because of a rule agreed by the government that allows train companies to increase fares by a maximum of three points above inflation. The inflation index is currently at 5 per cent. The Independent reports that Justine Greening wants fares to increase no more than one point above inflation, or an overall rise of 6 per cent according to current inflation figures.
Such a gesture would be small for the treasury as it is estimated only to cost £26 million. As a DfT source said: “There is money around for things when we think they are worth it, such as [weekly] bin collections.”
George Osborne is thought likely to postpone a planned 3p rise in fuel duty at next week’s Autumn Statement, following a determined popular campaign led by Conservative MP Robert Halfon.
However, the Campaign for Better Transport says that freezing fuel duty would cost the treasury £1.5 billion. The rail fare subsidy is small beer in comparison, but could be, in Justine Greening’s words, a little “package of sunshine” to ordinary families.
The fairer fuel campaign is a brilliantly successful example of policy well timed and well targeted. Higher fuel costs can be damaging to individuals, families and businesses and could even be costing the treasury money due to stifled economic activity.
A freeze in fuel duty would be the right thing to do. But as would reducing the equally spiralling cost burden on commuters and other railway users. The government took the decisive step of taking on Network Rail’s debt early this year in order to “secure greater leverage over the private company”.
Stepney the “Bluebell” Engine (1963), book number eighteen in the Thomas the Tank Engine series, contains a moving message. It was written at the height of the Beeching Axe– perhaps one of the greatest acts of state endorsed vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries – and little Percy was sad to hear of engines on other railways being scrapped. An old age of steam seemed to be dying. The Controllers on the British Railways, said Percy, “don’t like engines”.
Yet it was thanks to interventions by benevolent Controllers that such engines were preserved, against the onrush of modernisation. Percy was cheered no end when Stepney visited from the Bluebell Railway, where engines were being saved.
As well as intervening at the pumps, the government must intervene at the stations. Prove Percy wrong, and show that we do like our engines after all.