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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Gourvish and Wolmar - TurnipRail's 2 Year Anniversary - Guest Posts

This is the last TurnipRail Two-year anniversary post, and I am glad to say I finish off with two prestigious guest posters, Terry Gourvish and Christian Wolmar.

Kevin Tennent, Me and Terry at Battersea Beer Festival, 2011
Terry Gourvish: On the first day of my PhD, my supervisor he handed me a book: 'Mark Huish and the London and North Western Railway.' I consumed it, gaining a fondness for a subject which, at that point, I knew little about. But beyond that, I was in awe of the author: Terry Gourvish. On our first meeting I was star-struck. Oh how things have changed. Indeed, over a pint in the Golden Ball, York, it was partially his idea to start the blog. Terry's had an extensive career. His two-volume history of British Railways is unsurpassed, and he authored the Official History of the privatised railways between 1997 and 2005  and the Channel Tunnel. Furthermore, he has written countless articles on railway history, a comprehensive history of Britain's brewing industry and on business history generally. He now heads the London School of Economics' Business History Unit. Indeed, Terry is someone I look up to immensely. Thus, I was overjoyed when he agreed to write a piece for the blog, and for that I owe him much thanks.

Should Passengers Pay Higher Fares?
This issue comes up every year, and produces the same sterile arguments from the main protagonists: Passenger Focus, ATOC, et al. How much of the cost of running the passenger railway should be charged to the ‘fare box’ is, of course, a matter for public policy. Some countries, e.g. France and Italy, have historically charged more to tax-payers than we do in the UK. If that is justifiable, then passengers should pay less here too. On the other hand, in countries which load the burden onto tax-payers, the operation represents a subsidy to rail users, who are in general not the poorer members of society that subsidies really ought to reach. I would say that increasing the fare box via higher fares is justifiable, but only if: 1] railway costs are as low as they could be; and 2] journeys made on the spur of the moment, i.e. non-APEX fares, are not punitively high.

Can we say that this is so? 

Christian Wolmar: Well, what can be said about Christian Wolmar that hasn't been said already? Christian is Britain's leading transport commentator, popping up on TV and Radio almost every week. But more than that, he has written widely about railway issues and history. The first book of his I read, many moons ago, was the 'Subterranean Railway', his engaging account of the history of the London Tube. Subsequently, I have consumed most of his other books, including 'Fire and Steam', 'On the Wrong Line' and 'Engines of War.' I also am an avid reader of his fortnightly column in RAIL magazine. Therefore, as an author whose writings I have thoroughly enjoyed through the years, I was thrilled when he agreed to write a paragraph for this anniversary. Many, many, thanks to Christian:

Without understanding history,we cannot learn its lessons. In the research for my various books, it is remarkable how the same dilemmas over railway politics have occurred throughout their history. Italian politicians, for example, were debating whether to nationalise their railways in the 1880s, and interestingly it was the Left who opposed state control. Discussions over open access to railways predate that by some decades and nearly all rail companies realised that providing the traction as well as the track was the best option, a lesson of history missed by those who supported the rail privatisation of the mid 1990s. Subsidy, too, has always been a thorny issue and subject to much handwringing from politicians. If only they understood the history and learned from it, they would not make the same mistakes as their predecessors. Maybe that is too much to hope for, but as historians – and I have become one by default – we must strive to educate today’s decision makers about how the past can inform them.

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