Rail 561: Grayrigg: some cause for concern

The long term consequences of the Grayrigg train derailment will not be as serious as those of previous rail crashes like Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield but that does not mean either that they will be trifling or that they should be ignored.

There are several reasons why the rail industry has come out relatively well out of the accident, even when the shocking state of the points that caused the derailment was revealed. First, there is no doubt that the rolling stock withstood the impact remarkably well. But that is a credit not so much to Virgin, the leasing company or even Alstom, the manufacturers, but to the increased requirement of the health and safety regulations.

It should be noted that late 1980s vintage rolling stock on the East Coast line withstood the Hatfield and Great Heck accidents remarkably well, too. At Hatfield, the derailment took place at 117 mph and only four people were killed, all of whom were in a buffet car that hit a stanchion. At Great Heck, the derailment led to a very unlucky and extremely high speed collision with a freight train but even then many people walked away unscathed.

There was luck, too, in that the train stayed on the rails for several hundred metres, losing speed as it ploughed through the ballast with a full brake application before plunging off the embankment. Richard Branson implied this was thanks to the heroism of the driver and has already taken issue in a letter responding to an article I wrote in the Evening Standard (available on my website athttp://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/articles/standard/feb27,07.shtml) where I pointed out that the driver, while he does sound like an excellent fellow, could do very little once the train had left the tracks. Branson says that when the full facts comes to light, so will the driver’s heroism. We will wait and see.

The media, therefore, were remarkably kind, partly thanks to Branson’s brilliant spin on the driver. There was a hint of the ‘yet another rail accident’ among presenters in the studios where I gave interviews but this could be easily dismissed since this was the first crash caused by industry errors in five years and consequently the talk was mainly of lucky escapes. Another factor in interest waning fast was that the crash happened 300 miles away from London in contrast to other recent accidents, most of which were on the national media’s doorstep. As one PR man pointed out to me, that is why everyone is calling it the Cumbria crash, not something that would have happened had it occurred in Essex or East Sussex!

There was, too, an impressive response within the industry and, in particular, by the new Rail Accident Investigation Board which produced a report detailing the cause of the crash so quickly. Of course, as soon as dawn broke over the wreckage, it was clear where the train had come off and that the points were in a mess. The RAIB, however, rather than taking the safe option by publishing a narrow report merely giving the obvious facts, instead provided a comprehensive account and that openness served the industry well. Indeed, what other industry would have produced such a full explanation for a major accident so quickly?

John Armitt, the soon to retire chief executive of Network Rail, also hit the right note. His very demeanour on TV, looking visibly shaken and contrite, said it all and he was absolutely correct to put his hand up straight away and admit responsibility. That was in tune with the widely-commended response from British Rail in doing the same on the day of the Clapham Junction disaster in 1988, and was in sharp contrast to the ghastly buck-passing after Hatfield and Potters Bar, and, in particular, to the deeply damaging performance by John Edmonds, the then chief executive of Railtrack, on Newsnight after the Southall train crash when he stonewalled and looked distinctly shifty. Armitt made himself available for countless interviews but presumably it was company policy not to put up his deputy and replacement, Iain Coucher, who was nowhere to be seen.

All of that is the good news. But there are concerns. First, the accident suggests that Network Rail procedures on maintenance are still not sorted out after the upheavals of the past decade when they were contracted out and then brought back in-house. While Network Rail has been trying to impose standardised working procedures across the whole rail system, it appears that there are still variations across the country. As a Network Rail insider put it, ‘it is ensuring the supervisors and managers get out on the track and check things, rather than just ticking boxes. That is the most difficult task.’ The state of the points before the accident, with two stretcher bars being loose at one end and a third missing entirely, without a speed restriction being imposed, is truly shocking.

As an aside, it was interesting to see that the RMT leader Bob Crow was left blustering because he did not quite know what to say about the accident given that, in all likelihood, the errors were the result of actions by Network Rail staff rather than contractors. Indeed, his union delayed the questioning of workers for three days because of their demands to be present for an official to be present with speaking rights at all interviews by the RAIB. At least getting to the bottom of the cause will not be as difficult as at Potters Bar where Jarvis was obstructive in allowing staff to be interviewed whereas Network Rail is being far more open.

Secondly, the accident came at a bad time for Network Rail. The steady improvement of the past few years has come to a halt as was pointed out in the Office of Rail Regulation’s latest report, which happened to be issued just after the accident. The ORR highlights, too, that Network Rail’s relationship with the industry remains poor and that it is ‘not yet sufficiently commercial or responsive to the needs of its customers’. Indeed, Branson made a PR gaffe and angered many within the industry in trying to use the accident to suggest Virgin should take over the track, a form of integration that would, in effect, lead to greater fragmentation.

The accident will put the spotlight on Network Rail which, as the ORR suggests, is seen by many in the industry to be unresponsive to the needs of operators and, particularly, passengers with, for example, a tendency to close the railway at weekends far too readily. As one insider put it, ‘Coucher  runs an over-centralised, over-directed business that does not allow for the sort of quality improvements that are needed.  His style of management was fine in the early months but to still say, as he does, that the business is in the “consolidation” phase is now holding it back’. In other words, Network Rail needs to act in a more mature and sure-footed way, rather than as if it were still a new company setting itself up.

The danger is that this accident makes Network Rail even more centralised when, in fact, it needs to be able to trust its local managers more to impose standards that are uniform across the country. That does not mean everything being checked by head office as seems to happen at the moment. Worse, there could be the kind of risk aversion that led to soaring costs and massive delays after Hatfield. In a way, the resonance of this accident is stronger with Hatfield than Potters Bar. If there is anything like that sort of effect, managers will be talking about the Cumbria effect for years to come. Let us all hope that does not happen.

Orient Express is an exception in the value for money stakes

The column in the last issue on the Orient Express prompted a lengthy rejoinder from Mark Smith, the man at seat 61, who runs the wonderful website that is the starting point for any European train journey (www.seat61.com). He points out that I was rather unlucky with my choice of Vienna as destination for my sleeper train journey from Paris as ‘this is almost the last international route left in western Europe with “classic’” pricing’, in other words based on per kilometre rates on each of the three railways. Instead, most other long distance international trains in western Europe are now priced in order to be competitive with air fares and are run by special partnerships set up by the railways concerned. He says ‘for example, Elipsos is a consortium set up by the French and Spanish Railways to run the trainhotels from Paris to Barcelona, Artesia is SNCF and FS, running the Paris-Italy trains, and so on’.

These consortia operate on a commercial basis, setting their prices not on distance but with an eye to the competition. So whereas Paris Vienna cost me £130 (one way) in a couchette, Paris Barcelona is just £26, a fantastic deal given you get an overnight stay. Remember, too, that these prices are city centre to city centre, and that therefore the cost of getting into town, as well as taxes, must be added to the low headline fares of airlines. And even if it comes out a bit more expensive, the savings to the environment as well as the sheer pleasure of the journey should be factored in.

There are great bargains to be had and, more importantly, my point about the railways pricing themselves out of this market for the most part was mistaken. Certainly, given the environmental concerns around flying – and the happy coincidence of living just ten minutes bicycle ride away from St Pancras, which from November 14 will be the starting point for any foreign rail journey – I will be making extensive use of the Seat 61 website and will report on my efforts to get around Europe by train. What a shame, though, that it is impossible to take a journey on a couchette through the Channel Tunnel because the night trains once envisaged by British Rail never ran and the stock was sold off to Canada.