Britain pioneered the ill-starred global reform of the railways in the 1990s. Back from addressing a conference in Australia, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR believes Alistair Darling should learn a lesson from Queensland, which has bucked the trend for splitting track from trains.
It is not only Britain, of course, that is obsessed with structural reform of the railways. The topic of the Global Rail seminar in Brisbane organised by the UIC – the Union Internationale de Chemins de Fer, the global railway body – was ‘structure’ and the diversity of experience across the world is quite remarkable.
Very few countries still maintain their old state-run railways without having attempted at least a partial reform and reorganisation. But many are floundering and some have even begun to reverse changes they implemented only a few years ago.
The host of the seminar was Queensland Rail and the reason for my invitation to speak soon became clear. QR is the only integrated railway which has survived the reform of the system in Australia, where the fashion for separating the infrastructure and the operations took hold in the 1990s and also resulted in the privatisation ofmuch of the system.
While other railways were quickly split up and all the valuable bits sold, often for a pittance, the state government ofQueensland bucked the trend, by refusing to relinquish control. Moreover, it has only acquiesced to the basic minimum of reform required by legislation which involves the internal split of the infrastructure, into a separate part of Queensland Rail, calledNetwork Access, and the acceptance of third parties to operate services.
Therefore the message in my book, Broken Rails , which argued that splitting up the railways was the fundamental mistake in British rail privatisation, goes down well in Queensland.
QR, a government-owned company, is big business, albeit all on a 3ft 6in narrow-gauge railway. The company carries 156 million tonnes of freight every year, principally coal, and 47m passengers on 9,500 kilometres of track, most of it single. It turns over $2bn (£800m) annually, about a third of which comes in government subsidy. There is, though, a profit of $170m which is paid back.
Despite the commitment to the current structure – as politics and rail always seem to go rather uncomfortably hand-in-hand – there are inevitably major challenges. There is always pressure on the level of subsidy and, while the present Labor Queensland government is sympathetic to rail, there are politicians in the right-wing federal government who seekmassive cuts in rail spending.
But it is not just the politics that is causing QR some familiar headaches.Open access is a thorny issue. How do you ensure that third party operators pay the full cost of the service being provided to them?The setting of access charges is often an arbitrary process and the Australian equivalent of the regulator, who was themost boring speaker at the conference, was just as clear as the musings of dear old Tom Winsor over here.
Setting a rate that does not allow cherrypicking is a tough call.Ed Burkhardt, formerly head of EWS, is a great believer in integrated railways and during his speech stated that open access destroys railways by not allowing the cross-subsidisation of flows on a network.
QR still undertakes a lot of its own maintenance work and, like our ownNetwork Rail, which is newly converted to the concept, it needs to demonstrate this is the most efficient way of doing things. Yet the fact that its consultancy arm, IQR, has advised railways in 25 countries, principally in Asia, shows that it is getting a lot right. Indeed, perhaps that is one of the measures of success for the UK – when there is a global demand for the skills and expertise of Network Rail, and even the rest of the industry, then perhaps passengers and politicians will be confident that it is providing value for money at last.
Overall, the seminar delivered a salutary lesson on reform. FumioKurosaki, amanager with JR East, has been seconded to the UIC to carry out research on the results of reform. While it is still far too early to draw definite conclusions, it is clear from his cursory glance at countries across the world that there have been more failures than successes.
Interestingly, the trend towards automatically insisting on breaking up railways into infrastructure and operations is being reversed. As another UIC delegate put it, ‘the pendule [he was French] is swinging back’. In Sydney, for example, the infrastructure and services have been brought back together under one management after a collapse in performance and amajor accident.
The key message is an obvious one: reforms must bemade slowly and carefully. And before embarking on them, governments and railways need to make sure that any current problems with the existing structure are not just the product of poor management. It is, after all, a lot easier to tackle management failures than sparking off a process whose outcome is always unclear.
We pioneered the 1990s global reform- and we failed. Now it is up to Alistair Darling to ensure we lead the UK industry into a new phase – and put the track and trains back together. If he succeeds, perhaps the next time I am speaking at an international conference, the lessons from the UK may be rather more positive.
Tilt train is community bridge
While in Australia, I eschewed the prospect of taking the two-day journey through the centre of the country on the new Ghan railway, which has now been extended from Alice Springs to Darwin, but instead took a 25-hour trip on the tilt train which links Brisbane with Cairns 1,000 miles away.
I might not have accepted QR’s invitation to go on it had I realised that there were no ‘sleeper’ cars and the only accommodation was airline-type seating.
The service only started a year ago, reducing the length of the journey from 31 hours taken by the old ‘sleeper’ trains, some of which still run, to 25, thanks to the tilting and improvements to the track.With a bit more money, that could be reduced to just 20 hours – which for 1,000 miles would not be a bad journey time. The original idea had been to provide ‘sleepers’ but the Queensland government was worried about the cost of the project and reduced the length of the trains to accommodate just 181 people.
The three-times-weekly trains are timed to leave Brisbane in the evening so that the prettier part of the journey, north of Mackay, takes place in daylight in both directions.The economics of the project are, on the face of it, hopeless. Of course, in a large country like Australia, the railways can never compete with air, especially as budget airlines are proliferating Down Under, with Qantas just having launched its own.
Moreover, most of the passengers are pensioners who receive four vouchers for train trips every year from the state, which allows them to pay just $A11 (about £4) for any journey, though the tilt train actually means they have to use two of the vouchers. Single mothers also get this concession and there were virtually no full fare-paying passengers on the train on which I travelled, even though it was, at times, almost full.
The journey does, indeed, go through some pretty countryside but the decision to scrap the ‘sleeper’ accommodation seems to make it unattractive to the one potential full paying market available: tourists who love leisurely rail journeys. Indeed, I struggled to get to sleep, not helped by the fact that there was a three-year-old (albeit Isaac was a charming little boy) in the same row, aman who insisted on talking in whispers half the night two rows back, and somewhere else a fellow whose mobile phone bleeped at regular intervals.
One could argue that the moral of this little tale is that it demonstrates government interference with a state railway is always negative.However, one must remember that without the financial support from Queensland, both on capital and revenue, the project would never have got off the ground at all.
And the social benefits for the communities between the two termini are clear. Lots of people use the train for those types of intermediate journeys which are not feasible by air, and are very uncomfortable by coach. So the tilt train is a heavily subsidised but worthwhile social service and should be recognised as such.
Police in the control room
While Brisbane is hardly the crime capital of the world, there is a fascinating innovation in its control centre, which is not only responsible for signalling, rolling stock problems and the power supply, but also, in a recent move, has a policeman on duty from 1700 until the suburban service shuts down.
The key, according to Ian McColl, the QR manager who was showing me around, is that “the police aremuchmore likely to respond to a call froma police officer than fromone of us” as anyone who has dialled 999 will know. A simple but clever idea which surely should be imitated in the busier urban control centres here.