How do you smash an 150 year old monopoly?

“There hasn’t been a single railway built in the UK in 150 years, that wasn’t first proposed by the government”

If we have learnt anything from Brexit, it’s how not to have a rebellion.

If nothing else, the story laid out here should convince you that the promise of Brexit leading Britain to a more entrepreneurial future, is an out and out lie. Bureaucracy and control do not stop at Brussels.

If we want to get out this mess unless we must find a way to challenge power in Westminster too.

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George Bathurst is an electrical engineer by trade. Starting out in the Admiral Navy (yep!), tinkering with submarines, he later moving on to corporate giants Mars and Hewlett Packard. Earning well and using his skills, George could have been happy sitting back and enjoying life, but like all the best stories, one chance conversation in the pub, changed everything.

The historic market town of Windsor, home to her Majesty the Queen (and George) is a major tourist attraction, and, like most of London and the South East it requires continual planning to keep up with the population growth. Currently 14,000 new homes are being planned in Windsor and Maidenhead. In the midst of it all are two completely unconnected railway stations providing a constant source of frustration to commuters. When you look at a map, it looks like a broken puzzle, and you would assume there’s a good reason why it’s set up like this. If not, someone would have tried to fix it, right?

Right?

Wrong, and the idea of joining them up is no particularly controversial. The knock on benefits of improved rail infrastructure are huge: for the environment, connectivity, employment and housing.

“I thought about how to solve the problem one evening after a beer or two with a friend; I drew up a plan to to join the two stations.”

Not being a civil engineer, George first needed to verify that what he thought would work in theory, could work in practice. Seeking to get Sir Robert Alpine (of Sir Robert Alpine construction) on board, he figured out his home address by scrupulously studying Google maps (knowing that he has a miniature train set in his back garden). A few months later he received a reply: George’s theoretical plan was solid.

This is where things got difficult.

“The government and local council laughed in my face when I put it to them. You can’t do this” was their first response, “Who are you, who’s proposing this?”

Translation: we don’t know you, you haven’t done this before = you can’t do it.

 George approached Transport for London who replied similarly, “we can’t discuss this, it’s not a strategic priority.” Naturally, he asked how he could make it on to the list.

“We’d have to discuss it” came the response.

He could not get a meeting with the Department for Transport for three years. When it finally did, they assured George in writing there was no demand for the line, and at one point a representative even openly lied and claimed that they had met with him. Then came the excuse that George was promoting a venture privately ‘outside the system’.

“Eventually, I got a meeting with an MP but they pretty much treated me like I was ridiculous.”

He began to think that money might be key to being taken more seriously he would be Windsor Rail Link became official and he gained investment from Swedish company Skansa (one of the most conservative construction companies out there), and Meridiam, who own half of France’s TGV.

“I realised the issue isn’t money, no one in the DFT knows who much it should cost or how feasible it is. This is a political problem. There is no innovation in the railway sector. I am up against 2,400 people in the DFT, who have no specific expertise. I wholeheartedly believe the problem is that you are challenging the status quo and their monopoly on the system.”.

In public awareness campaigns George has run 80% of people support Windsor Rail Link. When leafleting, they got more interest than the local council.

George is also willing to investment into improving community and aesthetic aspects of Windsor.

“ The Riverside part of Windsor is not particularly nice. It used to be a swampland, then industrial and now it’s mainly car parking so I want to put money into making it a nicer place to live. We’ll take on some of the risk of that.

It is neither an unpopular or controversial idea, and yet George has been fighting this battle for nine years. First DFT said the scheme didn’t allow for capacity. Then they reported that they’re too far advanced in their own plan to consider it.

But the facts don’t stack up. George’s proposal will connect Slough up London, make the commute 20 minutes faster, create 3000 more jobs in Windsor, and even extend a local park by 33%. Phase two of the project will save the taxpayer millions since it will use just one line to connect to Heathrow, rather than the current two proposed.

In December George was told an assessment of the proposal had been conducted, and the conclusion was that it was neither appropriate, nor a priority, because of Brexit. He asked to see the assessment, and in March this year they wrote, admitting that no assessment was ever done. 

“They have no idea if it will work or not, they’re just guessing. But I don’t know where else to go now? I saw Sam speak and I want to try and be more pirate, but it’s well outside my comfort zone. My feeling is that people don’t believe that change will really happen. How we can disrupt this?”

How can we?

 The point about George’s campaign is that it is uncontroversial. He’s not suggesting anything wildly new or radical, but it will almost certainly improve people’s lives. 

And yet, when the opportunity for a clear solution is posited, there is entrenched political resistance to ‘outsider’ interference. Given that the government has not proved themselves competent at guiding the country through a turbulent period, perhaps it is time to acknowledge they don’t have all the answers and hand over to responsible, hardworking people (to quote our PM) willing to take on that burden?