Rail 540: Railway passed from one ‘safe pair of hands’ to another

Although new Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander is probably just keeping the seat warm, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR advises him to stay on top of the job as next year will be a vital one for the railway.

The arrival of a new Transport Secretary would normally raise speculation about changes in direction, but the replacement of one Scottish lawyer with a reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ by another has dampened any expectations of shifts in policy. Indeed, it is unclear how much room a young minister, like Douglas Alexander, the new Secretary of State promoted to the full cabinet for the fi rst time, has to manoeuvre.

Alexander, who is older than he looks but still just 39, has, according to the knifesharpening political correspondents of the Sunday papers, risen without trace through the ranks of the Labour party.

He has been in various departments – Trade, the Foreign Offi ce and the Cabinet Office – in relatively senior posts but there is little sign of any real achievements where he made a difference. While he has long been tipped for higher office, he is not talked about as a bright young thing set for No. 10 in the mould of David Miliband, who has already made his mark at environment with a series of thought-provoking interviews.

Since Alexander’s previous jobs were relatively low-profi le, he does not come into the cabinet with a track record of achievements or an established reputation – like say John Prescott who was, after all, deputy leader of the party, or even Alistair Darling, who had at least previously been in the cabinet.

Conventional wisdom has it that transport secretaries are politicians either on the way up to great things or in their last job before oblivion. Alexander is clearly in the first category and, indeed, he is a Brown protégé, in the Chancellor’s inner inner circle, who is expected to get a major job when big Gordon fi nally moves next door.

Therefore Alexander is unlikely to be long for transport and therefore his focus will be on keeping the seat warm in order to confi rm his reputation as a safe pair of hands. Not rocking the boat and avoiding doing a Byers will clearly be his priority.

He is a cautious politician, as witnessed by his steady rise and his competent but unremarkable appearances on programmes like Any Questions? and Question Time.

Tony Blair sent out a rather predictable but quite prescriptive letter of appointment to Alexander, which was by way of a warning, since it stressed that “your future plans will of course need to be set against the background of lower growth in funding than in recent years”. Nevertheless, Blair told Alexander that he had to “develop a clear long-term strategy” to be published in 2007 and look at “how we can continue to improve rail performance and options for increasing capacity in the network”. And he has to work with the Eddington review on infrastructure.

In other words, he has to produce a strategy that expands the railways, while spending less money than his predecessor and at the same time examining the feasibility of big future schemes like Crossrail and a North South high-speed line. All this suggests that Alexander does not have a fantastic amount of wiggle room but that he should mug up on the railways because 2007 is going to be a vital year in their history.

Indeed, he has his work cut out. As Darling announced just before his departure, the government is going to set out its strategy for the railways in a document next year which, presumably, will be published with the two others that it is statutorily required to produce – the High Level Output Specifi cation (HLOS) that will set out its requirements from Network Rail between 2009 and 2014 and the Statement of Funds Available. The diffi culty of this task, and the potential pitfalls for our cautious new minister, cannot be overestimated.

There is no doubt that this is a ridiculous way to fund a railway, but I do not want to bore readers by repeating this (see RAIL passim). Suffi ce to say that Alexander is stuck with it and has drawn the short straw, as he will have to be the man to make this system work. What, for example, if he decides that some branch lines are just too expensive to fund and that he wants to divert resources to the busy networks in the Passenger Transport Executive areas? He will face the full fury of the rail enthusiast lobby that will undoubtedly be backed by various newspapers.

Or if, quite reasonably, he decides that Network Rail’s budget can be squeezed by far more than Messrs Armitt and Coucher think is possible, and he ends up in a fi erce row with them, with the regulator not necessarily, as demonstrated by the GNER case, backing him? There are a host of pitfalls for Alexander and while he should be pleased that he has an opportunity to make a real impact, even if he is in the job for just a year or so, there are signifi cant risks that Although new Transport Secretary Douglas he may face a crisis not of his own making.

One thing he could do better than Darling – and that is to be honest by putting the case for government policy on the railway in a straightforward way. Most notably, it would be good if the new minister were honest about the government’s vision for the railways. For example, rather than saying that he is doing the best possible out of a botched privatisation and diffi cult economic circumstances, he should be prepared to argue coherently for the present structure of the railways. If he sincerely believes in the strange amalgamation of renationalisation and privatisation that his predecessor has created, then he should articulate that vision. And if he does not, then he should be prepared to suggest a better way forward.

What I found so gobsmackingly dishonest about Darling was his performance at the 2004 Labour Party conference (RAIL 498) when he said renationalisation would cost £20 billion whereas, in fact, the unionsponsored motion he was speaking against was putting forward the idea of taking franchises back in-house when they expired, a policy that would have cost nothing. Alexander, being new to the job, does not have to obfuscate in that way and should be honest, making clear what the government wants.

There is a deep irony of timing. If, as now seems likely, Blair goes around this time next year, poor Alexander will be stuck in this job. Producing the HLOS, the SoFA and the strategy, all of which are set to be published next summer, will preclude any move away from transport at that very delicate time for the railways, making it impossible for Brown to move him immediately. So we may have Alexander for longer than he might be reckoning on.

Report raises risk doubts

The first report into the accident at the level crossing next to Elsenham station in Essex which killed two teenage girls has just been published by the Rail Safety & Standards Board, and confififi rms my impression (RAIL 529) that this was a particularly dangerous crossing. Most worryingly, it highlights that action should have been taken on several aspects earlier.

The primary cause was that the two girls, running for a train on the down track having bought their ticket at the offi ce on the up side, ran straight into the path of another train. However, when I visited the site shortly afterwards, it was obvious even to my layman’s eyes that this was a very unsatisfactory arrangement, for a number of reasons. There was a pedestrian crossing next to the road barrier which had warning lights but no lock and no separate warning about a second train when, in fact, this was a common occurrence as the line is relatively busy.

Network Rail was very hostile to my investigation, arguing that the crossing was safe and stressing that it was just a tragic mistake by the two girls. Given the obvious dangers of the crossing arrangements, I questioned the risk assessment process that had, apparently, deemed the crossing safe, and I have been totally vindicated.

The RSSB report has now uncovered the fact that whereas the risk score was originally assessed as 28 (out of 84), now the board says it is in fact 47 because the crossing keeper did not tell the assessor of the frequency of misuse – that is a pretty basic mistake which suggests the assessor was box-ticking rather than carrying out a proper investigation.

A score of more than 55 requires immediate action while one between 35 and 55 means the risk should be reduced. Clearly if the right assessment had been made originally, then with a score so near to 55, at the very least there would have been a proper reappraisal of the crossing.

It is always easy to look at these issues with hindsight, but the report confi rms the view that there was a serious fl aw in the risk assessment procedures prior to this tragedy and that basic measures – such as fi tting a lock on the wicket gate for pedestrians and installing a second train warning – should have been taken before disaster struck. As I wrote at the time, while clear methodologies are needed, such work also needs to be carried out by people prepared to use their common sense and nous, rather than simply box-ticking.