Is Wolmar On the Wrong Line?

On the Wrong Line Review

RAIL’s Christian Wolmar frequently crossed swords with RICHARD BOWKER when he chaired the Strategic Rail Authority… so who better to review our columnist’s hard-hitting new book? Bowker was actually there at the time, so has Wolmar got it right?

When Nigel Harris rang me to ask if I would review Christian Wolmar’s new book On the Wrong Line, I hesitated briefly. But ever the optimist, and believing that only the complete cynic could argue that nothing had improved over the past four years, I said ‘yes’.

Let’s start with the positives. Wolmar has an easy-to-read style, even if at times it strays into condescension to make apoint. There’s a minimal amount of incomprehensible techno – babble so you don’t need a PhD in Advanced Railways to get through it, and the historical context is genuinely interesting and sets the scene well. And some bits are fascinating and perceptive.

The analysis of what happened at Potters Bar is quite gripping, for example, and the section on the accounting classification of Network Rail is as close as any thing I have ever seen that explains the arcane process in plain, accessible English. This is a very useful contribution

Prejudice and speculation

So when he is writing about inanimate objects or factual events that are in the public domain, it works OK. However, aside from dealing with these few but important specifics, the book falls apart at the seams and drifts unannounced (so, readers beware) into areas of quite outrageous speculation. Here, in my view, the lack of detailed balanced research is exposed in stark relief.

Prejudice, and in some cases, post-rationalisation happily takes over instead. For example, Wolmar asks in the context of the 2004 Rail Review whether “…a body separate from government [can] be responsible for strategy in the industry”. Odd question since the law as it was then in the form of the Transport Act 2000 said that the Secretary of State had ultimate responsibility, and could direct the SRA to write and update any strategy he or she so wished. In the matter of railway strategy, the law clearly stated the SRA was subordinate to, not separate from, government.

He says “…there had been precious little progress in the two years since Railtrack had been so hurriedly dispatched”. Only someone who had truly rammed their head in the sand could make such a statement. The evidence, even if restricted simply to the turnrounds achieved on the West Coast and Southern power projects, points to the diametrically opposed view.

He says: “… money was apparently the sole factor driving refranchising decisions. However well a company performed, it did not get any preferential treatment when the franchise term ended. Alistair Darling, in setting out the results of the rail review in July 2004, announced this would change. ”

The facts are starkly different. First, the SRA’s franchising policy, announced in November 2002 and therefore a document in the public domain, says exactly the opposite. It says explicitly that the lowest cost bid would not necessarily be chosen.

Deliverability was more important than money. Wolmar attended the press briefing. And as the former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, I can state categorically for the record that there was never ever any decision I took on any franchise purely on the grounds of money. Not only that, past performance is capable of being taken into account – the prequalification documentation which each potential franchisee received explained how. And Darling actually said he would be continuing with the post-November 2002 franchising model.

Greater Anglia: the truth

Getting the basic facts wrong is irritating because little has been written on these subjects and there is a real danger that ‘Mystic Wolmar’s’ view, in the absence of an alternative, will be assumed to be correct. But it is when the misunderstandings are applied to develop his arguments that things go really awry. The Greater Anglia franchise story in the book demonstrates this dramatically. Let’s first look at the facts. Franchising à la 1995 was indeed useless. The publicsector did not properly specify what was required and the private sector was not properly held to account once the franchise was let. Franchising Mk 2 achieved the near impossible and made the situation worse. A 20-year, equity-driven model with delights such as Special Purpose Vehicles, and additional complexity that a nuclear physicist would have been proud of, turned out to be completely unworkable.

When I arrived at the SRA , every single TOC owner said the same – the model was bust. So I took a very long, hard look at the model and decided on a Mk 3 version that set out clearly what the public sector wanted and the mechanisms by which the private sector would be held to account, including a more sensible approach to risk transfer.

Once the new model was reasonably well defined, I hosted a dinner with all the chief executives of the owner groups of the train operating companies; Brian Souter (Stagecoach), Phil White (NEG), Moir Lockhead (First) and their peers were present. We explained the model and we had an excellent, mature and businesslike debate.

They gave me three very clear messages. First, they liked the principles of the new model as long as it didn’t become overly bureaucratic. Second, it was absolutely essential that shortlists for franchises were kept just that – short – although they accepted completely that would mean the prequalification process being a real filtering process. Third, the SRA had to get better at meeting deadlines for the procurement process. I accepted all three points.

The new model was endorsed and we went on to consult widely with ATOC and its members. So Wolmar’s statement that “…incumbents would normally be expected to get through this first hurdle at least which was largely intended to weed out no-hopers” turns out to be a reference to 1995. By adopting the new model, the whole industry had understood that this would no longer be the case.

Now fast-forward to Greater Anglia. We issued a tough prequalification questionnaire and made it clear to the market that our preference was to shortlist three bidders if we could, in accordance with my commitment at the TOC owners’ dinner. FirstGroup’s submission did not get in the top three. Fact.

Wolmar implies both ignorance of public procurement law and a wish to return to bad practice with comments like “…we could have had a quiet word”. No, we could not. Before the process started, we could encourage would-be bidders to take the new process very seriously. But good governance practice and integrity come into this. It would have been appalling practice to have done as Wolmar suggests and would also have exposed the SRA to Judicial Review had it become known to the wider bidding market.

Deciding not to shortlist FirstGroup was a very difficult decision and one over which the executive committee of the SRA and the board agonised. One problem was that because of the prequalification scores, to have included them would have meant including five bidders and therefore breaking my promise to bidders (including Moir Lockhead) of having short shortlists.

And why do people continue to think that firms should get on shortlists solely on the strength of past performance? Greater Anglia has a turnover of £350 million a year. As taxpayers, do you think it would be right for a public official like me to say “I think we should trust them in the future” simply because of what’s been in the past? No rational person would ever do that – they’d want to know that there were new ideas and a fresh approach being applied.

Wolmar says Bob Breakwell was a great operator. That’s true, but he was also about to retire! There was no way I was going to proceed purely on the basis of past performance and the presence of ‘good blokes’!

If we’d put FirstGroup on the shortlist, we’d have had to bump someone off who had made a real effort with their prequalification, and if nothing else that would have been morally wrong. And Wolmar needs to be careful – his book accuses the SRA of subsequently giving FirstGroup a soft ride on Thames. That is completely untrue.

The really interesting thing is what FirstGroup did. They were big enough to admit they had fouled up. And then they changed their entire approach. They took the prequalification process seriously and subsequently won ScotRail, having submitted a prequalification that was excellent and a bid that was superb. They are in my view a class act and the turning point – ironically – was the day they didn’t get on the shortlist for Greater Anglia.

Sins of omission?

The omissions from this book are often more surprising than what’s in it. For example, neither David Rowlands, the permanent secretary of the Department for Transport and the senior official responsible for the 2004 Rail Review, nor Sue Killen, his number two who did all the legwork, seems to get a mention anywhere! For those of us who lived through the period from the end of 2001 and especially the Rail Review, that’s a bit like writing a record of the 2005 Ashes and forgetting to mention that Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie were playing. Unless of course, Wolmar is simply unaware?

The problem of books like these is that they are extremely difficult for an outsider to write, especially if they fail to conduct interviews and rely on memory, or a back-trawl, in Wolmar’s case, through his own column inches. Just focusing on the period from 2001 alone, if one was able to put Messrs Blair, Byers, Darling, Vadera, Mottram, Rowlands, Bowker, Winsor, McAllister, Robinson and Armitt in a room and administer a sort of collective truth drug then maybe, perhaps, we would have a complete picture.

But any less a group wouldn’t do. Only if you were there can you really know, and the examples of where Wolmar has gone awry that I have mentioned here are inevitably only a part of the overall inaccuracy. Ask the other guys in the list above, and they’ll generate a different, but probably equally damning list.

I thought that investigative journalism involved proper and incredibly detailed research, interviews and painstaking, almost forensic analysis carried out over a number of years, but Wolmar seems to have dispensed with this; in his world, the answer that a vertically integrated, monolithic, nationalised industry is the only solution, is as plain as a pikestaff. He seems to believe that the mere fact of him saying it ought to be sufficient weight to convince even the most sceptical reader.

Except it won’t. He has, I belive, fallen into the trap of believing his own rhetoric. He has had these views for so long, and written about them so many times, that the need to question, challenge and ferret out the facts seems to have been discarded and replaced by an almost arrogant belief that we can take it as read that he’s right.

For fundamentalists only…

So is On the Wrong Line worth reading? Well, if you are part of that thankfully dwindling band of zealots who believe the railway is “Knackered until Nationalised ” (thanks for that phrase, Nigel) ; that BR was a progressive, commercially astute and customer-focused business ( well, all right, compared with the rest of Europe it was ) ; that Thatcher, McGregor and Robson were devils on earth; that anyone who has spent less then 30 years on the railway is ‘ nowt but a lad’; that there really is no point to franchises and nothing that has happened since 1996 to cheer about at all; or, indeed, a combination of all of the above – then you’ll get a good fix from this book and you can have your prejudices and misconceptions pandered to without being challenged by the possibility of another point of view.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a balanced, objective analysis of railway privatisation and the events since, then I really wouldn’t look here. Wolmar believes in a publicly-owned railway, vertically-integrated, and the message of this polemic is that anyone who believes differently is seemingly deficient in some way. Indeed, Wolmar really does let himself down at times. A writer of the stature of Alan Bennett might get away with foul language in his texts, but for Wolmar to write in the very last sentence of the book“…Hopefully, it will help people stop the bastards next time ” says it all. Heart has won over head.

Christian dedicates On the Wrong Line to his friend Roger Ford who he says “…has forgotten more about the railway than I will ever know”. Finally, Christian, we find something upon which we can both wholeheartedly agree.

Review by Richard Bowker, October 26 2005

  • RapidAssistant

    Of course Bowker’s line was as predictable as a wet weekend in June. Along with countless other TOC managers who have made a right little Eric n’ Ern for themselves out of what were originally public assets whilst the service got worse, fares went relentlessly upward and safety was compromised – it’s no surprise that he’s attacked a publication which shook their little featherbed to the core.

    Strip away his own “rhetoric” and it’s interesting how he hasn’t questioned any of the arguments over why the Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar accidents had their roots in privatisation and chooses a defensive line on how the WCML modernisation and Southern power upgrade schemes were turned around by Network Rail – rather than on why the botch-ups on these projects happened under Railtrack in the first place. Instead his criticisms focus really on what was said about the SRA and the franchising process – the only bit which he really knew about in any detail.