White Paper repeats history

Governments have always failed the railways. The recent White Paper on the railways is just the latest example in a long series of missed opportunities to sort out the relationship between the state and the railway.

Researching my recent history of the railways*, it is striking just how badly that essential relationship has been managed. Indeed, it got off to the worst possible starts when William Huskisson, a former government minister, was killed in 1830 by a train at the opening of the world’s first major railway, The Liverpool & Manchester. For most of the 19th century, despite Gladstone’s attempt to nationalise the network in 1844, governments did not involve themselves sufficiently in the railways. Instead, of creating an overall plan for their development, the shape of the network was allowed to be determined by private sector interests in search of narrow profit with scant oversight from Parliament.

This led to duplication and wasteful competition, and a network that does not necessarily follow the most logical route. There is also a wide variation in standards, which explains why it takes an hour less to reach Peterborough from London than the time to get to Dover, roughly the same distance away. The state also failed to keep a proper oversight on safety and it was only after a series of disasters caused by basic errors, notably the Armagh accident of 1889 in which killed 88 people, mostly children, that stricter safety measures were imposed.

Government, though, always had its greedy eye on the railways, aware of their importance as a strategic resource. So during both world wars, the network was quickly taken under state control and exploited to the full, both overused and undermaintained. Rather than paying proper compensation, both times the government treated the railways badly. After the first world war they were forced to amalgamate into four notionally private concerns but were overregulated, which meant they could not be profitable in the face of growing competition from the motor car.

In the wake of the second world war, the railways were nationalised, but not given the resources to invest. And in the mid 1950s when, finally, they were granted investment funds, much of the money was spent on the wrong kind of railway – huge goods yards that quickly became redundant and 50 types of diesel locomotives, many of which were scrapped within a few years.

After that, for the most part British Rail was starved of cash and always required to achieve two conflicting aims: to provide a social railway, open to all at relatively low cost, while also meeting commercial objectives to pay its way or even make a profit. While gradually the distinction between the two parts of the railway begun to be understood, short sighted politicians seeking cuts in government spending were always wont to ignore it and demand immediate savings from the railway, ignoring the rigidities in maintaining such a huge piece of infrastructure.

Then, of course, we have had the privatisation that everyone accepts was ‘botched’ but which no one wants to unravel. So what would a perfect relationship be? Ideally, the railway would be run by professionals, with a light touch from government. Of course, the state has to have a role for two reasons. First, huge amounts of subsidy are pumped into the network and therefore it would be irresponsible for ministers to eschew any role whatsoever. Secondly, the railways are a vital part of the country’s infrastructure and it would be wrong to devolve decisions about major investment projects, new lines or indeed closing existing ones entirely either to railway professionals or the private sector.

Therefore the best possible structure is for government to allow a coherent and united railway organisation to the day to day decisions in running the network, while working together on strategic long term planning. Importantly, too, the railway has to be given long term financing plans.

Oddly enough, under British Rail we had the first part of this, a hands off relationship which worked relatively well except for the fact that financing decisions were entirely in the hands of the ever parsimonious Treasury which had no long term view and made short term decisions that led to waste and inefficiency. Now, we have the opposite. The High Level Output Specification and Statement of Funds Available process – please, let’s hope the Department give it a sensible name next time – ensures that the railway knows how much money it is getting on which it can base long term investment plans, even if the amounts are insufficient. However, the structure of the industry means that the money does not go very far and much of it is wasted as undeserved profits are pocketed by private companies and huge sums are spent with little accountability by Network Rail. Since the railways are 177 years old and their relationship with government has been strained throughout, perhaps a solution will be found by 2184. With a bit of luck.

* Christian Wolmar’s new book, Fire and Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain, has just been published by Atlantic Books, £19.99.