Rail 536: Darling: damning the high-speed line with faint praise?

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling’s warm words about a North- South high-speed rail link are far from a ringing endorsement of the project, claims CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

I felt the gooey consistency of egg on my face as I listened to Alistair Darling’s speech to the RAIL conference on March 15. I had been tipped off that he would be pouring cold water on the idea of a North-South high-speed line, effectively killing it off, and had written a piece for the Independent on Sunday predicting this (which you can read on my website, www.christianwolmar.co.uk).

Darling did not, however, kill off the project. Instead, he said that “with the continued improvements to the service through the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, we need to consider whether we should extend the high-speed railway line to the North out of London”. So I seem to have got it wrong.

Indeed, I was taking a bit of a risk. I broke two of my basic rules of journalism in running the piece. First, normally I never write a story that can be proved wrong within a few days. Even if one gets a leaked draft of a document or speech, it may not be the right one or, worse, the swines can even change it at the last moment if they know it has got out. Second, I firmed up the story a bit more than I should have because I got it from two sources.

But then, as I wiped the egg off my face, I wondered if actually I deserved this selfinfl icted torture à l’omelette. Various journalists came up to me at the conference and suggested that really I had not got it that badly wrong. Looking precisely at what Darling said, he clearly was damning the North South high-speed line with very faint praise: “No decisions have been made… a high-speed line could improve journey times and bring potential economic benefi ts [and] environmental benefi ts by getting more people out of their cars and off aeroplanes [but]… we face a complex number of challenges – capacity, supporting economic growth, regeneration and increasingly the environment. These trains use a lot of energy… I have asked Rod Eddington to look at it as part of the work he is doing on transport in the long term.”

Certainly the speech was very far from an endorsement of the project, and he had not advanced the idea a single centimetre since he gave a similar speech and briefi ng at the Railway Forum conference last year July.

In fact – by suggesting that the new line would be a matter for the report on transport infrastructure being compiled by the former British Airways boss – he is effectively sub-contracting the decision to an unelected Aussie who is, apparently, back in his home country spending a mere day a week compiling what was hailed as an urgent review but which is now due to be published in June at the earliest and possibly even September. There is no immediate prospect of even a study into whether there should be a detailed assessment, which suggests all the urgency of an Edwardian branch line service.

“Darling’s speech was more smoke and mirrors than illumination…”

There was, too, a wider mystery around the speech. Darling had specifi cally asked to give a keynote address at the conference after initially turning down an invitation, suggesting that he must have had a major good news announcement to make. However, while announcing that there would be a strategy document setting out plans for the next 30 years in a White Paper published alongside the High Level Output Specifi cation (the document that will set out the government’s requirements from Network Rail for 2009-14) is a step forward, it hardly merited the pre-speech hype. That had been fostered by some heavy briefi ng which resulted in several stories which, in retrospect, look as much off the mark as mine. The Independent’s excellent industrial editor, Mike Harrison, a man who knows his onions, went very strongly with “plans for a major expansion of Britain’s rail network, including billions of pounds worth of investment in new rolling stock and high-speed lines, will be unveiled today by Alistair Darling”.

This line seems to have come partly from the pressure group Transport 2000, which has become far more positive about the prospects for rail following a briefi ng which was also attended by the CBI and trade unions in February. Darling told the group it was pushing at an open door in terms of wanting an expanding railway, and attempted to allay fears over cuts to Northern train services, saying they were well used and cutting branch line services would save little money.

Darling, therefore, seems to be making great efforts to ensure that the various pressure groups are onside rather than making lots of noise about cuts to the railway system. But remember, he is the man who has scrapped all tram schemes except Edinburgh, who demurred over funding the King’s Cross Thameslink box fi t-out, who has not done anything to speed up such enhancements as Thameslink 2000, and who produced an aviation white paper that basically gave carte blanche to unrestricted growth of domestic air travel. Then there is the row over Cornish branch line services.

So it is difficult to take this at face value. Indeed, you need to be as adept as the Bletchley Park decoders to work out what Darling is really saying. Moreover, Darling made clear in his National Rail Conference speech that he won’t be around to address the same audience next year. He has long been slated to be Gordon Brown’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (though other candidates, such as Ed Balls, formerly Brown’s chief adviser and now an MP, have emerged, and the longer Blair stays, the more likely Darling may miss out) and there is the suspicion that he is carrying out his transport brief with his hoped-for next job uppermost in his mind.

It was therefore noteworthy that the one thing Darling did not mention in his speech was the other part of the process of determining the railway’s budget, the ‘Statement of Finances Available’, known as the SoFA, which must be issued along with the High Level Output Specifi cation.

Darling’s speech was more smoke and mirrors than illumination – and it is only when we get those documents – by which time he clearly will have scarpered, that we will have any real idea of whether the optimism of Transport 2000 or my pessimism is correct.

Contractor concern

?The welcome conviction of the cowboy contractor in the dreadful Tebay tragedy in which four workers were killed raises again the issue of safety of rail workers. There is no doubt that the record of the industry has improved enormously in recent years.

However, after almost reducing the total to none, recently there have been more deaths, and it never pays to be complacent. A railwayman has contacted me to high- light an anomaly in the safety procedures. He points out that work carried out near the track at a station is governed by a com- pletely different set of rules than elsewhere on the railway.

For example, if a lamppost fitting requires attention, and it is on a footpath to a signalbox, then the COSS (controller of site safety) working to a safety plan checks the PTS (personal track safety) cards of the staff working, and briefs the qualifi ed electricians (also PTS holders) about local conditions such as line speed and direction of trains. A fenced green zone is set up and the COSS is on site the whole time.

Yet, if this work is carried out more than 1.25 metres away from the track at a station, the staff require no training or certifi cates about working on the railway. Indeed, if it is an unstaffed station, there will be no safety briefi ng of any kind. As my informant says, “If something does go wrong, then staff don’t know how to stop train movements.”

In his experience, “silly little things occur that are dangerous such as carrying ladders across open running lines, easier than going up and down stairs, and ladders have been used in the ‘four foot’ of open lines”.

In response, Network Rail, the Railway Safety and Standards and Board and even CIRAS, the confidential reporting service, all seem satisfi ed with the status quo.

Network Rail told me: “On a platform you are only ‘on or near the line’ for rules purposes if you are doing engineering/technical work closer than 1.25m from the platform edge. Trackside you are ‘on or near the line’ if you are within 3m of the nearest rail.”

However, that does seem a possible anomaly which, at least, should be considered by these illustrious bodies before anything awful happens. My pal also points out that having contractors, rather than inhouse staff, is a far greater safety risk and wastes a lot of money in routine tasks such as changing light bulbs. Are any other readers concerned about this issue?