Rail 523: The good, the bad and the ugly in a decade of upheaval

Celebrating ten years as RAIL’s controversial but acclaimed columnist, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR reflects on a decade of commentating on a momentous era in the railway industry.

Allow me the rare indulgence, dear reader, of harking back in time and taking a long trip down memory lane. This is the tenth anniversary of writing this column which first appeared in the Raildated Sep 27 – Oct 10 1995 giving me the opportunity to reflect on a decade of momentous and seemingly unending change in the industry. I have concentrated on the early days, since they are the most interesting and going through the whole period would require too much of readers’ indulgence.

I will leave aside the fact that nothing seems to have transformed as much as my appearance since, unless the camera lies, I had lots of brown curly hair and wore terrible dark blue shirts which must have been fashionable 20 years previously. It is worth recalling the speed with which technology has developed, too – in those days, I had to send in my copy by fax, which was thought to be a daringly adventurous way of communicating and did not possess a mobile phone, only a pager with a very limited memory. As promised, I will attempt, too, to mention some of my best and worst predictions in these 260 columns.

The first column, written just as privatisation had taken shape but not really progressed off the drawing board, was full of predictions and questions. I listed the good, the bad and the ugly of privatisation (just to show how fair minded I was) and interestingly highlighted how the private sector bidders, notably Sea Containers, which eventually won the GNER contract, were full of schemes for ‘parkway stations, double decker trains and lots of marketing initiatives’. Rather patronisingly, another bidder told me ‘Railway managers have been very good at running the trains to timetables and so on…but there’s 30 per cent of the job they’ve never even thought about, such as attracting more people onto the railways’. I offer no comment.

Even then there were complaints about the fragmentation of the railway: ‘Sea Containers has long argued that they want to control the infrastructure as well as the train operations. Other bidders privately agree.’

Within a few issues, I was closely examining Labour promises since everyone expected them to win the forthcoming election, which in the event was not held until May 1997. The new shadow transport secretary, Clare Short was floundering, not quite knowing what to make of her boss’s promised return to a ‘publicly controlled, publicly accountable’ in the light of the commitment to stick to the Tories’ spending plans. She blurted out that ‘we will have them [the franchises] back in public ownership as cheaply as its possible to do’. I was hoping for Labour to set out a ‘coherent strategy for rail’, something which we are still awaiting.

By December that year I was advocating the creation of a Rail Accident Investigation Branch, because of concerns within the industry that Railtrack should not be in a position of investigation its own accidents. Well, in a couple of weeks time (October 17), the RAIB goes live after a long gestation and delays caused by confusion over its jurisdiction.

Then to my first big mistake when Railtrack was privatised in March 1996. My column was headed ‘why I won’t be buying shares in Railtrack…’ My argument was that ‘I have no faith in the way that Railtrack operates’. I quoted a counterargument from a ‘commentator in The Times business section’ who wrote that the only risk to shareholders was ‘if Railtrack was run in a worse way than BR’ and since that would be impossible the shares must be a good buy. So I am not the only one to make mistakes….

In any case, I was only sort of wrong. The shares sold at £3 60 and soared within a couple of years to nearly £18, so a good killing could have been made. But only by selling at the right time for the shares fell well below the offer price just before Railtrack was put into administration, although the shareholders may receive compensation when the result of the court case will be announced soon.

In July 1996, Clare Short was setting out Labour’s policy on the railways in more detail and said that the remaining bits of BR would be brought together under a new strategic body. I wrote that it would be called the SRA ‘but surely they are going to have to find a better name for it’. Wrong again, Wolmar, they never did. Ms Short was also suggesting that a Labour government would gradually build up a stake in Railtrack by using the subsidy paid to it directly, but that this was greeted with scepticism by the City. Indeed, though none of them guessed that Labour would effectively take the whole company back!

I did get it right the following month when I predicted: ‘The framework of rail privatisation has meant that the rolling stock companies – and a few enterprising individuals in them – can achieve very high returns for very little risk.’

Now here’s a real howler. One year into writing the column, I was moaning about how the terrible service provided by the National Rail Enquiry Service. Now if there has been one unequivocal improvement in service, it is NRES especially given the enquiry service under BR was haphazard and hopeless.

And here’s another one – ‘Is the West Coast modernisation plan too little, too late?’ I asked. ‘Railtrack is to pump £1.35 bn into infrastructure and another £150m to take tilting trains’. Too little?? Now who was telling porkies here – did anyone really think it could be done for that money, given that at one time the estimate soared to 10 times that figure, and the final cost will now be something like £8bn.

Much of the time up to the 1997 election was spent wondering what Labour would do once it had won as everybody assumed it would, but once the expected landslide had occurred, there was little idea of what Labour would do. It promised a White Paper which would ‘provide a sustainable framework for decision-making’. I was not impressed, and wished for a new station at Tufnell Park on my local Barking to Gospel Oak line which would have a good Tube connection. I am still waiting.

Sometimes, fortunately, I do get it right. In January 1998, I made my best prediction – this was the days before the hapless Mystic Wolmar – which was to write a column suggesting that the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project was about to become a financial basket case since the numbers just did not add up. Under the original scheme, the line was supposed to be funded by profits on the Eurostar topped up with a bit of government seed funding, but it was clearly apparent that this would never worked. A few days after the article appeared, the original London & Continental company threw in the towel and there ensued a fraught period of refinancing which ended up with John Prescott providing a lot more government to save the project.

This was the period when certain elements of the Labour seemed to have declared war on the industry, heightened when Virgin fatefully delayed many of the delegates arriving to Labour’s annual conference in Blackpool . At the conference there was a great interchange between Alistair Darling then ‘the dry but handsome’ Chief Secretary to the Treasury who spotted John Reid, the new Transport minister, and barked: ‘When are you going to sort these trains out?’ ‘When you give me some more money’ came Reid’s instant reply. Obviously, Darling was not to know that it would be down to him to get the trains sorted!

January 1999 marked the birth of Mystic Wolmar who was on reasonably good form that year, although the prediction that the chairmanship of the SRA would go to someone with Labour party connections proved way off the mark with the appointment of Sir Alastair Morton. Two years later, despite a string of correct predictions – Labour to win a majority of 130 seats – I bravely suggested that Peter Mandelson would end up a transport secretary. Thank God we escaped that fate, or presumably the goods yards would be filling up with trains from China .

Later that year I was launching another forlorn campaign, hoping that the Thameslink 2000 would get built at least by 2004. Naively, I presumed that was what the creation of the SRA had been about.

I end on the worst furore I caused. I wrote a column suggesting the railway should welcome ‘bustitution’ which could be a way of improving public transport in some areas. I won’t get into the debate again, but suffice to say that this article engendered more hate mail than all my other columns put together.

Seriously, though, the most interesting point about looking back over these columns is while they got the tone of scepticism about privatisation was right, they missed the mark in two important ways. Nowhere, though, is there any suggestion of how expensive the privatisation and fragmentation would prove to be for the taxpayer. If I had suggested at the time that the railways would be costing two or three times as much as under BR, there would have been raucous laughter from the industry and politicians. On safety, too, I reckon I underplayed the issue. The string of major accidents were caused by the way the industry was broken up and there is little hint that I understood that prior to their occurrence.

On the other hand, I was too sceptical about the industry’s ability to attract extra passengers. As the Association of Train Operating Companies has pointed out again this week, the numbers using the railways have risen more than expected but the cost, in terms of extra subsidy, has been astronomical.

Let me, therefore, make one prediction for the next 10 years. The focus of rail policy will be attempting to bring that subsidy figure down rather than boosting the number of passengers. And if that means that the structure has to change again, then that is what the government will do. The next ten years will see almost as much change as the previous decade and much of it will not be for the better.