Rail 399: This crisis won’t be calmed simply by soothing words

Railway pundits are split into two antagonistic camps – optimists who believe the crisis will all blow over and things will soon be back to normal, and pessimists who fear the meltdown will have long-term effects similar to the BSE scare. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR is firmly in the latter camp, warning that the crisis has put Railtrack in the last chance saloon.

Meanwhile, as is traditional at this time of year, ‘Mystic Wolmar’ also attempts to read the railway runes to forecast what lies ahead in 2001.

There was a little-known extra casualty of the Hatfield train crash. A conference called ‘Renaissance of Rail’, organised by the Institute of Public Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank, was supposed to have taken place. It was, of course, cancelled as the many speakers like Gerald Corbett and Sir Alastair Morton had rather more pressing business.

The organisers say they will hold it in the New Year but by my reckoning, they should hold their horses for five years or so given what has happened in the past few weeks. As I mentioned in the aftermath of Hatfield, there are two schools of thought about the Troubles.

The first, given to journalists in cosy little fireside briefings by industry bigwigs, is that once all the speed restrictions are lifted, the sun will start shining and the platforms will be full of smiling passengers. That was also the tone of Lord Macdonald’s much-reported remarks in the New Statesman, although to be fair he did not say ‘crisis, what crisis?’, just as Jim Callaghan never said that about the Winter of Discontent either.

But dream on, chaps – that scenario is pure bunkum. I go for the second option which many other insiders in the industry have privately suggested to me. This is a crisis which will have a long-term effect on the industry and all kinds of ramifications that even Mystic Wolmar at his most prescient cannot foretell. I have been wracking my brains to find an analogous situation in another industry and the only one that comes to mind is the BSE crisis in the beef industry – and a decade later, the impact of that is still being felt by farmers across Britain. The American election industry is another that springs to mind.

Rail travel is a product. Its main selling points are comfort, speed, reliability, punctuality and, outside peak hours, value for money. Well, the industry has not been delivering a lot of those recently, has it? Persuading people to come back will not be easy.

Of course, there is one big captive market – commuting. But strip that out of the equation and the extent of the railways’ problems in attracting back passengers is clear. Pace Lord Macdonald and his soothing words, millions of people will have experienced the hassle of a rail journey in the past couple of months. These ‘discretionary’ passengers – who have a choice of modes in their future transport decisions – are going to be reluctant rail travellers for years to come. Some will have bought cars just to avoid the pain of the train and others will have found alternative ways of getting to work or hooked themselves up with video link facilities.

Look at what GNER has done over Christmas: it has actively put off people travelling by making bookings mandatory (though I doubt that is either legally or practically enforceable). These people are not going to return easily to rail, despite all its advantages.

Moreover, the negative publicity has made matters worse. As one train operator executive put it to me: “People don’t even bother to check any more – they just assume the 0732 from Guildford is going to be late and they jump in the car instead, even though something like three-quarters of trains are running normally or with just a bit of delay.”

There is also freight. And here the pattern is similar. The prospect of growth in the near future is as likely as Bush resigning and admitting that “it was Gore wot won it”. Major contracts are being lost and new business will be much harder to win.

Then there is the internal damage to the industry. Existing staff are deeply demoralised and recruitment is going to be nigh on impossible, particularly of good graduates. Improving the morale will need more than the big Christmas hampers given to its staff by SWT, welcome as they must have been.

And at the heart of the industry there is Railtrack, which is a company in crisis. Railtrack has admitted that its lack of attention to its core activity, running a safe and reliable railway, was a major error. Yet, in response to criticism from the all-party Commons Transport Sub-Committee which highlighted the company’s lack of depth on engineering on the board, its directors merely reiterated the mantra that it needs people with all kinds of experience, ranging from raising finance to dealing with its customers. When will they ever learn? as the Marlene Dietrich song goes.

Railtrack cannot bounce back as if nothing had happened. It has been found wanting in so many ways that it needs its own recovery plan. Moreover, just as it will start to teeter back into life, it will be hit by another hammer-blow with the publication of the Cullen Inquiry report, which will be highly critical of the way that the company failed to heed the warnings before the Ladbroke Grove disaster.

Railtrack will also have taken its eye off countless other balls in order to concentrate on gauge corner cracking. All its other safety-related work on, for example, SPADs and vandalism, is bound to have taken a back seat as managerial time was devoted to rerailing and sorting out the crisis. So the likelihood of another major incident will have been increased.

Already, I don’t believe the promises about everything being all right by Easter. At first, after Hatfield, I was being told Christmas. Now it’s Easter, but how can anyone tell since speed restrictions are still being imposed? The remarkable Mussolini-type threat by Tony Blair to take over the decision-making process on speed restrictions shows just how near to total meltdown Railtrack has come.

The impact of another major incident is almost too awful to contemplate. By this, I don’t necessarily mean a fatal crash, though the likelihood of at least one in 2001 is around 75%, on the basis that there have been only ten years in the past 40 during which there has been no fatal train accident and that the improving trend in safety seems to have been halted by fragmentation. It could just be a major bridge being washed away or some other serious technical problem, possibly concerning new trains.

The crazy safety culture which has paralysed the industry once could strike again. Already the police seem to be overreacting madly to any event on the railway, as shown by both the Hatfield and Mossend derailments. (If I had been on the Mossend train, I think I would have been arrested for obstruction.)

As if all this is not bad enough, there is the little question of money. Railtrack is unlikely to make any profits this year, depressing its share price and therefore making it more difficult to raise finance. The train operators will be pitching their bids with fewer promises of investment and higher demands for subsidy. The Government is going to have to cough up more just to bring in the investment foreshadowed in the ten-year plan.

None of this is meant to be negative, but merely realistic. It is no good the industry putting its head in the sand and thinking this is a bit of a cock-up but it will be all right in the New Year. Train operators will have to come up with imaginative schemes to win back their passengers. They cannot afford to sit back and hope that they will return.

A point was made by John Goldrick, the station agent at Ledbury-subject of a feature in RAIL 389. He says despite all the problems, his takings were up nearly 12% in the four weeks to December 9. That shows what can be done by offering a personal service which is now absent from the network. Connex has also shown imagination by opening shops at some of its stations which also sell tickets.

As for Railtrack, it is in the last chance saloon. Another major cock-up or even another bit of bad luck and its continued existence in its current form will be put at risk.

Mystic Wolmar: better with hindsight

It is time for Mystic Wolmar to put on his fourdimensional glasses and look to events in 2001. But first, the rather shaming task of having to assess last year’s performance in the Nostradamus stakes. Well, after a chart-topping hit rate of five out of six in the first two years, this year’s performance has been somewhat lacking.

I suggested Gerald Corbett would still be in post as Chief Executive of Railtrack; two of the first three franchises (Chiltern, SouthCentral and East Coast) would remain with the incumbents; and that the Channel Tunnel Rail Link would hit a funding crisis. I rather think that had there not been the Hatfield disaster, all three would have been spot-on. But the point about prophecies is to see ahead. Therefore Gerald Corbett has let me down badly and while Chiltern has remained with the incumbent, SouthCentral has been lost by Connex and East Coast has been held up by the disaster.

On the CTRL, I claim a hit. I quote from the Daily Telegraph of November 13 kindly sent to me by Tim Bain Smith: “Railtrack is holding detailed discussions with the Government over the terms on which it would build the second phase of the CTRL due to a sharp rise in the project’s estimated costs.” Therefore the score is 1-1 and one still to be decided in extra time. So £50 for the Railway Children so far.

And here’s four for 2001:

  1. Steven Marshall will not be Railtrack Chief Executive.
  2. The final deals for fewer than half a dozen franchises will actually be signed.
  3. Labour will win a majority of more than 130 seats in the April election.
  4. John Prescott will no longer be at the DETR and Peter Mandelson will get transport.

Now that’s a lot of hostages to fortune.

And a New Year suggestion…

Since Railtrack is considering taking on Alan Williams, a long-time columnist for a rival magazine, to its board, I suggest that a whole group of writers should be co-opted as directors: Nigel Harris as Chairman, Roger Ford of Modern Railways as Chief Engineer, Stan Hall as Safety Director and myself as Communications Director.

Wouldn’t that be better than the present lot?!

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