Privatisation is often hailed as a good way to reduce costs to the consumer and increase services by means of competition. Personally, I'll go for that in principle. It has been introduced to the British telecommunications network and been successful [Note: British Telecom is still the most popular service because it's generally regarded as the best of the lot]. It's less effective in areas like power and water supply, because having three or four different sets of water pipe or electricity cable running across the country is plainly going to be a pain in the rear. The result is a regional monopoly with no more competition than before, but a complete lack of control over prices by elected officials, the practical upshot of which being Microsoft writ small. Witness the situation in California.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of how privatisation can go wrong is the rail network in this great nation. I won't say that British Rail couldn't have stood some improvement, but a great deal of the problems could be attributed to a lack of funds to sort them out. The bottom line was that the government of the day didn't want to spend the money. I don't relish the idea of being heavily taxed for no good reason and I'm all for eliminating wastage, but frankly you get what you pay for. The sad thing is, I'm atypical in this respect. It seems that an inordinate amount of political influence is wielded by people who are rich enough to do without things like public healthcare and state schools, which is why some parts of the school I'm typing this in weren't repainted until the inspectorate came along two years ago and the textbooks I used in my first year haven't been replaced after seven years, missing pages and all. But I'm wandering off the point.

So, the rail network was privatised in the 90s. There was a fair bit of argument in the papers over the merits of this scheme, but it wasn't a great political issue whilst Milosovic was being ousted and there was a faint prospect of three decades of bloody and brutal sectarian guerilla war in Northern Ireland coming to an end [Mr Clinton, whatever else you may have done, for this you will be remembered with great respect]. But after a while people began to notice that there were a large number of incredible blunders made in the organisation of the privatised network.

Little history lesson: In the early days, the network began as a patchwork of little companies, generally only possessing a handful of engines and two or three stations. Gradually, mergers and takeovers absorbed the smaller lines, whilst the more successful ones expanded their operations. It took years to standardise locomotive types, signalling practice and loading gauge but by the late 1920s there was a reasonable degree of consensus. By 1948 there were only four mainline operators: the Great Western, London North Eastern, Midlands and Southern Railways. During the war they had operated under the joint command of the Ministry of Supply, and there were advantages seen in leaving things that way. At the time, the British government were nationalising just about everything. The postwar government was one of the most progressive and forward-looking administrations that the United Kingdom has ever had; they were determined that a whole generation of men who had gone out to fight for their country would never have cause to wonder if it had been worth the effort, as thousands of men returning from the hell that was trench warfare to their crowded slums and typhoid epidemics must have.

Everything pretty much lasted until the late 70s, when Margaret Thatcher's new brand of conservatism appeared. The old spirit of 'laissez-faire' (a posh way of saying 'Screw you Jack, I'm all right') was revived, and Britain was suddenly confronted with a government that really didn't care if millions of people lived in abject poverty. They lasted for four successive elections until replaced by a Labour government that had got itself elected by turning into an almost exact clone of its predecessors. It is both ironic and pathetic that the Conservatives are now trying to repackage themselves as champions of the common man. The selling off of a cash-strapped and decrepit rail infastructure came about shortly thereafter.

For reasons that defy rational explanation, the breakup was not by region, but by area of responsibility. One company owned the tracks, another the stations and several others the various rolling stock. It's as if a resteraunt had the cooks, waiters and washers up all working for different people. The owners of the tracks then decided to contract out maintenance work to various small firms. The result? Maintenance standards plummeted. Mismanagement, corner-cutting and outright incompetence led to several accidents. In one instance, metal fatigue caused a rail to snap as a train negotiated a fairly sharp bend. Ultrasonic and X-ray equipment for detecting such faults has existed for decades, but it had been ignored. Four people died and ten were injured. Then a while later some idiot failed to adequately tighten the bolts on a set of points, which disintegrated beneath the wheels of a train as it passed through a station and more than a dozen people died.

Those are the worst consequences, but there are plenty of more mundane ones. Signal and points failures are common, leading to some of the lowest punctuality figures in Europe. Guaranteed connections are now all but non-existent. You can't book tickets for a whole journey without wading through no fewer than three sets of 'Please hold the line whilst we play you annoying music' systems. Minor inconveniences I admit, but still bloody annoying.

The train operating companies are generally pretty good, but they are stuck with outdated rolling stock and bad infastructure they can't do anything about. Look at Virgin Trains. They expended huge sums of money on tilting trains capable of greater speed than the usual maximum but which require changes to trackside equipment such as overhead gantries. The Italian-built multiple units were designed especially for the high-speed line that was under construction. But the project lagged behind schedule and the Pendelino stock has yet to run operationally at its design maximum. Having wasted millions on trains that they couldn't use, Virgin filed a huge lawsuit and won, but the track didn't get finished for another two years and still restricts the Pendelinos to a paltry 140 mph [many continental high-speed trains routinely exceed 300]. However, there is one part of Britain's rail infastructure that is well maintained even if it's getting on a bit, punctual and highly regarded by its customers.

Preserved branch lines.

Yes, that's right. The only people doing a decent job of running railways in Great Britain are the ones who are doing it as a HOBBY. Judas H Priest, but that is depressing. Are the only people who can run a railway the saddoes with model railways in their attics? I'll happily put my hand up to having a great love for trains (a particular favourite is the old Class 55 'Deltic' diesel express passenger locomotive), but I know that theoretically it shouldn't be necessary to feel like I do about them to run a business involving railways at a reasonable level of efficiency.

If we're going to reduce the use of cars (which needs doing, because our roads are taking more traffic than they are designed to handle), then we need good alternatives. Whether our railways are run by the government, private consortia or even the blasted trainspotters makes no difference. Somebody please, for the love of God, think of a way to SORT IT OUT!