Monday, 6 July 2009

About public transport in the UK (8) [Despre transportul în comun în UK]

Another article of faith which today’s Britons are told they should live by is – according to my friend & fellow blogger from Scotland – “Privatised transport is the best in the world.” Is it really so? Can everything be so simplistically reduced to ‘privatisation = good, while state ownership = bad’, as the ideologues of ‘free market no matter what’ claim?

First and foremost, I must say that, undeniably, British public transport is incomparably better than it’s Romanian counterpart. There’s absolutely no term of comparison between the two, in spite of having encountered some common ‘bad examples’.

If I were to use a gold standard for public railway transport, I’d name the rail system of France. The TGV is a masterpiece of contemporary transport technology, trains are safe, comfortable, punctual, and not excessively expensive.

In the UK, travelling by train seem to me undoubtedly comfortable, but relatively safe, sometimes only relatively punctual (see what a little snow can do!), and dreadfully expensive. An Easy Jet flight from Gatwick to Edinburgh is cheaper (currently from £ 40.99 to £ 78.99) than the cost of the Caledonian Sleeper (£ 54 to £ 185.5) on the same route.

Therefore, due to budgetary constrains, I opted for what is many times cheaper than the two mentioned option – a Megabus night bus for only £ 24 (half this sum if you pay with weeks in advance!). I survived three times the experience, and – with the Lord’s help – I’d do it again.

But I wouldn’t recommend night bus travel to those who have a sensitive stomach. If you’re not some kind of tough traveller like I become, and if you don’t like chatting with strangers (one even posted a comment on the current series – here), bus travel could really wear you out.

Train travel in the UK could have been the most pleasant, if privatisation had driven the costs down for the passenger. This has not happened yet, and it probably never will :-(

As it can be read here, among the effects of rail privatisation in the UK one could find more set-backs and disappointments than straightforward successes. I wish I had any readers (British or not, but using British trains) left to comment on this topic…

[For all the episodes of this series, and all the posts on this blog go to/Pentru toate episoadele din această serie şi toate postările de pe acest blog mergi la: Contents/Cuprins]


Gregor said...

Dear Bogdan

We’ll make a Social Democrat of you yet ;-)

Seriously, though, I am sceptical of the state’s involvement in people’s lives and a centrally planned economy but think it can organise useful infrastructure projects and employ people for unprofitable but valuable work (like, uh, historical research). I wrote about this on my blog:

‘As a government employee and British citizen, I support a form of intelligently planned Social Democracy in Britain (other nations can vote for their economy of choice). However, whilst most British journalists and politicians would break into a cold sweat at the idea of renationalising the railways, an army of bureaucrats run the passport agency and are employed in other unproductive roles.

This could be seen as an indictment of the free market: that it has not created universal employment and the state has to take over by creating 'follies' for people to work on. Yet religious belief in Thatcherism and Reaganism goes marching on.’

What you say about France’s railways is probably correct; the French also seem to have the best healthcare system in the world.

Yet the Brits I think devote too much time to ‘not being France’, and no British political figure would dare to suggest we could copy them.

It is strange to you no doubt. It is sad, but a good indicator of how infantile mainstream British intellectual culture has become.

MunteanUK said...

Hello dear Gregor,

...and be sure I'm not a Social Democrat (yet :-); it's just that I personally noticed (to a little etent, of course), but also read about this difference between how public transport works in your country (UK) and in your paternal ancestors' country (France).

Privatising most of what economic theory names 'public goods' seems to have been a core issue of Thatcherism... However, I assume that no sane Brit can claim that Margaret Thatcher was an altogether 'catastrophe' for the country.

Privatisaton in itself is not something inherently 'disatrous' as fanatical left-wingers may claim. The big problem is - as you metioned - turning it into a panacea, and consequenty having a religious belief that it can work, irrespective of specific circumstances.

I don't know how much of a social-democrat state France is, and I'm sure it also has its share of faulty aspects, nevertheless, it is in control of a far stronger economy.

Britain's amazing growth under Blair (something for which I don't see any merit of his, nor of Brown's!) was due (mainly, not necessarily exclusively) to the speculative financial services that would eventually draw the financial crisis of Sept 2008. It may have erupted on Wall Street in NY, but it's seeds were sown in the City of London. [but that's another topic, let's not divagate now!]

Very much on the contrary, France relies on two trumps:
1) efficient branches of industry (nuclear energy, defence, aviation, public utilities, public transport, a 15% stake in Renault etc)
2) much (if not all!) of that industry is state-owned, while no state can effectively 'own' financial services!

In the part of Europe I am from, where state-owned enterprises keep being robbed by all kinds of 'businessmen' (see the gangster killings in Bulgaria, the oligarchs in Russia, and Ucraine, the sale of virtually everything to European - often state-owned, as I told you! - investors in Romania etc) privatisation is just the lesser of two evils.

In the UK, privatisation should have been a true 'chance' or it should have been used only as a last solution. The UK had the business culture, the public funds, the expertise of skilled industrial specialists + state bureaucrats to try a similar path like France.

Why didn't the Brits try it? Couldn't they establish some 'national champions' to match the French ones? I'm sure they could have done so. Sadly, the Brits are too proud of a nation to ever learn anything good from their neighbours :-(

I've learned many good things in the UK, dear friend, yet in spite of this, I dare giving a diagnosis of your nation. The Brits - maybe you'll say only the English are suffering form this, and not the Scots :-) - have developed a superiority complex, which prevents them from being humble enough to notice good things to learn from around the world.

Many Brits still look down upon the 'barbarian' Americans (while others are foolishly admiring anything American), some Brits hate Russia (as you often write about on your blog), while others have a sick (insular?!) mistrust of France and Germany. And if I noticed some traces of secret admiration for the latter, there's a rarely dissimulated mockery of everything French.

Sometimes I get the impression that the Brits live in a different age in their understanding of contemporary France. In the British public discourse about France there are many references to the defeat of Napoleon (but that was 194 years ago!), or to World War Two when - undisputedly! - you saved many French asses from being kicked by Nazi boots...

To this attitude (not exactly to you personally), I can only say this:

Wake up, dear British friends, and understand that the Frech Republic you often make fun is no more! There's a different France out there, by no means a 'perfect' or 'ideal' state, but very much different from your cliches! Stop laughing at the French, and remember that he who lauughs last, laughs loudest!

Gregor said...

Dear Bogdan

‘However, I assume that no sane Brit can claim that Margaret Thatcher was an altogether 'catastrophe' for the country.’

Uhh, that’s what they call a loaded question ;-)

My main concern is that Thatcher has become a religious figure (as has Winston Churchill) and this quasi-religious aspect of British national identity is deeply disturbing to me. It has created an intellectual freeze in British thought, where anyone who disputes that her neo-liberal ideas are a perpetual solution or that we can learn from our neighbours is jeered at.

Thatcher herself did not privatise the railways calling it a ‘privatisation too far’; she also praised the NHS.

But now Brits seem to be in a death spiral of self-flattery. The media still tells us that we are freer than our European cousins because they still have strong state influence in the economy. Even as the CCTV cameras expand, the DNA databases includes more innocent people and the ‘anti-terror’ legislation is used to destroy liberty.

The conservative intellectual Robert Conquest has written a book about this called ‘The Dragons of Expectation’ stating that we are free because of our economic freedom. Even though this is drivel, cf the Privacy International map, it is a respected argument.

‘Many Brits still look down upon the 'barbarian' Americans (while others are foolishly admiring anything American)’

The strange irony is that they are often the same people! The same people who will laugh at Americans for being devout and for opposing abortion will support America’s foreign policy and ‘war on terror’.

‘And if I noticed some traces of secret admiration for the latter, there's a rarely dissimulated mockery of everything French.’

True. It is embarrassing given that the French education system and infrastructure put them in an advantageous position.

And whilst, like you, I am fairly anti-ecumenical, I was heartened that the French have elected a devout leader for the first time in decades. Perhaps they have seen the falsity of consumerism.

Incidentally, being a Brit Hellenophile is also a bit of a lonely position. Whilst I am not an unambiguous fan of all things Greek, we could learn a lot from their attitude towards authority, and their cultural values. Though many Brits would scoff at the idea of learning from a poor Mediterranean country.

‘The Brits - maybe you'll say only the English are suffering form this, and not the Scots :-) - have developed a superiority complex, which prevents them from being humble enough to notice good things to learn from around the world.’

I would indeed say that Scots (due to their different history) have a more European outlook.

MunteanUK said...

Here are other points I want to make, my frined:

1. No matter what people say, as a foreign and neutral observer of British contemporary history, I don't think Thatcher was that bad for the UK :-)

Neither her, nor Reagan were 'faultless idols' as some may claim, but they were the right leaders at a right time - to give the final push for ending the Cold War.

Of course that, after 20 years, we are slowly witnessing how Communism is slowly replaced by a global surveillance society, which will eventually make Soviet camps look like 'resorts' compared to the world of tomorrow... In spite of this, the end of Communism was undoubtedly a good 'break' - a chance given by the Lord for some people to turn to Him!


2. O course, what is bad is not Thatcher as a historical figure, but turning her into a myth. As for what you said about Churchill becoming a myth, it seems that, on the other hand, mythisation goes hand in hand with ignorance:


3. British 'economic freedom' is a hoax! You can't seriosuly count on 'financial services', while public utilities, heavy industries and especially energy companies are not only privatised but foreign owned.

The USA has big companies (big worldwide economic actors!), France has big companies, Germany has big companies, Russia has big companies, and even smaller countries (Austria) have them... while the UK has very few of these. It only has the City of London, but it's strength and influence is on the wane...

Do you think that this is the right path to prosperity? Check this link:


4. It's really sad that the Brits' greatest enemy is their own pride - and pride is what actually the greatest foe of every human being.

I don't see the Brits ever stealing good things from other nations, as they are so much used to 'patronising' others.


5. I wish things were different in the case of the Scots, and to a certain extent they probably are. At least they seem to me more open to Eastern Europeans, and more receptive to 'EU affairs'.

However, I was just wondering... isn't the 'craze' about Scottish independence carefully orchestrated by 'EU partners' who are often fed-up with London being a maverick in the UK?