Rail 436: Architects of privatisation have blood on their hands

Jarvis Rail’s briefing to journalists about the possibility of sabotage at Potter’s Bar showed that the company was more concerned about its plummeting share price than the human cost of the tragedy, claims CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

It is hard to write dispassionately and coolly about the Potters Bar crash. The sight of Sola Ogunwusi, the wife of accident victim Alexander Ogunwusi talking of her husband’s love for his four children, makes it impossible to be entirely rational when considering what happened to the 1245 King’s Cross- King’s Lynn on which he was killed on May 10.

I know the arguments about safety on the railways. I even repeat them on the broadcast media. The railways are the safest form of transport. Their safety record has improved in every decade since the war. Rail accidents are rare and attract disproportionate coverage. Moreover, it is impossible to achieve 100% safety in an industry that involves moving about very heavy chunks of metal at high speed close to each other.

That is all very well, but it does not help Mrs Ogunwusi and the relatives of the other accident victims. When disasters occur as the result of billionto- one occurrences such as the Great Heck accident, then there is little one can do but sympathise. But that is not the case. Potters Bar appears strongly to be the fourth accident out of the last five on the railways – Great Heck was the exception – which is the result of the way that the industry was privatised and fragmented.

As my book, Broken Rails, explains at great length, Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield all had their roots in the way the industry was restructured for privatisation. At Southall, the key factors included the botched reorganisation of the maintenance depot, in an attempt to save money by the new operator which had taken over the franchise, and the lack of clarity over how to report faults, given that there was both an operator and a Railtrack ‘control’. At Ladbroke Grove, there was the failure of Railtrack to address the problems with signal SN109 which had been passed at danger several times and about which an executive at Great Western had expressed her concerns repeatedly, as well as the rushed driver training programme at Thames. At Hatfield, lack of communication between Railtrack and the contractor, Balfour Beatty, and the fact that Railtrack’s ethos was based on profit maximisation rather than safety, allowed a defective rail to be left in place long after it should have been replaced.

Potters Bar, too, seems to be the result of the structure of the railways – specifically the way that Railtrack was forced to contract out all its maintenance work. Jarvis, the contractor on that line which, ironically, took over from Balfour Beatty after the Hatfield crash, has been fighting a fierce rearguard action in the media to keep the possibility of sabotage on the agenda. The company briefed national journalists on the Friday after the crash and was rewarded by front page stories in the broadsheets and a splash in The Times which even mentioned a murder enquiry. Yet the British Transport Police poured cold water on the idea, taking the remarkable step of going on the TV news to play down the story.

I was briefed the following day and remain thoroughly unconvinced, not least because Jarvis itself has not had access to the points but was relying on evidence from photographs. Its case was that according to metallurgical evidence, the points had been tampered with the night before in a way that no bona fide engineer would have done and therefore the company could not be responsible. There had been other cases of sabotage, said the company, although it admitted that none was as serious and there was easy access to the track from a car park near the fateful points. However, on pressing, Jarvis admitted that sabotage was merely a theory that the company did not want ruled out, and it was not suggesting that this was necessarily the cause.

All this was horribly unseemly: a rail company desperate to save its skin starts putting out theories about an accident in order to save its skin. Indeed, the company was in danger of doing an Enron or a Marconi. Its share price fell by a quarter in the week after the accident and was likely to head further southwards given that the Sunday papers were sniffing heavily around the story. That is why Jarvis mounted its aggressive PR exercise.

There are a lot of easier ways to sabotage the railway than to undo bolts which require a huge spanner, a lot of effort, some knowledge and risking one’s life by trespassing on a very busy line. Moreover, the points were near a station, not a site that anyone trying to wreck the railway would choose. And finally, the adjustment to the points – it is clear that vibration alone did not cause the crash – had a highly unpredictable result: it was not until the locking bar broke as a result of the train going over it that disaster resulted. All other rail industry sources, including the BTP which stuck its head above the parapet on the issue, point to a “cock-eyed attempt at maintenance” carried out by “someone untrained or completely incompetent”. That makes a lot more sense.

We are back to the way the industry was privatised and fragmented, which introduced a new and incalculable risk into the railways which has caused these disasters: interface risk. The Tory ministers who foisted an unworkable structure on the railways have blood on their hands. They did not want the workforce at Railtrack to have the industrial muscle to stop the rail network and therefore Railtrack was forced to contract out all its work. There was no operational reason for the structure. In fact, quite the opposite. While contracting out may work well if there are peaks and troughs in demand for labour, such as with major projects, there is no advantage in outsourcing work for which there is a permanent demand, such as maintenance that has to be carried out day after day, week after week. Moreover, as details of the arrangements between Jarvis and Railtrack have emerged, it is clear that the contractors, even under the new type of contract, IMC 2000, are still subject to very little checking from Railtrack. As Richard Middleton, Railtrack’s Technical Director has conceded, since privatisation there has been a lack of consistent standards and insufficient emphasis on technical competence. Damning stuff.

As an aside, there is an added problem. Even in the unlikely event that Jarvis were right about sabotage, no one would believe the company anyway. The press officer, in inviting me to the briefing, gave it all away: “There’s a lot of misinformation out in the marketplace,” he said, confirming that Jarvis’s concern was not with truth or lessons to be learnt or regret for the human cost of the tragedy, but simply for its share price.

The Potters Bar crash and the subsequent plummeting of Jarvis’s share price opens up another problem for the railways under the present structure. Of the bits of the railway diaspora, Railtrack went bust because of Hatfield and the West Coast upgrade; eight out of the 25 train operators have had to be bailed out because they bid on the basis of overoptimistic forecasts of cost-cutting and because of Hatfield; now Potters Bar threatens to do for the contractors. Jarvis has found to its cost that the railways are not a risk-free business, however lucrative the terms of the contract the company has been able to screw out of Railtrack.

One awful irony is that Railtrack’s Eastern Region is experimenting with the Galaxy scheme which involves much greater co-operation between contractors and Railtrack and resulted in a joint inspection of the fateful points in March. Clearly the crash will ensure that such schemes are further developed.

With Network Rail now certain of taking over from Railtrack, the possibilities are both worrying and intriguing. Will contractors be willing to bid, at a reasonable price, for future contracts? And if not, how quickly would it take Network Rail to build up an should ensure that the organisation is capable of undertaking considerable amounts of engineering in-house. That is now essential to regain public confidence in the railways. The structure of the railway was already unstable before Potters Bar but now it is even more fluid.

On antimacassars and missed jokes

On a lighter note, and we need one this issue, I would like to thank the 40 or more readers who e-mailed me about the origin of the term antimacassar. David Byford got in there first with the following explanation: “Macassar was a district on the Indonesian island of Celebes, which exported ingredients used in the manufacture of hair oil. The Victorians wanted to protect their furniture from the oiled heads of their male folk and the anti-macassar was invented about 1850 for this purpose.” My ignorance was shameful but has been remedied. It is deeply satisfying to know that there are so many learned and erudite readers of this column.

The point about ‘First’ is a serious one as reader J Rickard confirmed: “Only last week I had to help an elderly couple bemused by the First label on Standard FGW seats.” Come on, First Group, get new antimacassars. You are in the customer service business, rather than trying to show passengers that “we are the greatest company in the world”.

Also, thanks to Chris Randall and Mr Rickard who were the only ones to have noticed the non-joke in my last column. As a result of an over-zealous computer Spellcheck at the editing stage, the following rather tautologous sentence appeared in my last column: “Network Rail is a gift to the headline writers who will quickly transform it into Network Rail.” The last two words, as the very astute Mr Rickard guessed, should, of course, have been Notwork Rail (or indeed Network Fail). Should the previous sentence again be incomprehensible thanks to the computer, then, dear reader, try to guess the rather feeble joke. Remember, computers do not have a sense of humour.

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