Rail 669: stop this railway blame game

When the news about the fire in a scrapyard under the M1 came on the Radio 4 Today programme, the presenter Evan Davies asked one of his interviewees ‘who was to blame?’ for the incident. Within hours, Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, was picking up on the blame theme by announcing there would be a review of what activity could take place under motorways.

The truth, of course, as I was desperate to say when I did an interview on BBC London about the incident is that sh*t happens sometimes but obviously that is not quite the right language for the Beeb. A Gallic shrug of the shoulders would be a much more sensible reaction. After all, what better place is there for a scrapyard than under a motorway bridge or, indeed, railway arch? Yes, of course, sometimes incidents may happen which disrupt the transport flow, but society is all about reaching the right compromises and surely it is better to site them in such unwanted spaces, than, say, out in the countryside or next to a housing estate.

The blame culture, whose midwife is the media – even upmarket sections of it like Today – is a terrible affliction which affects the railways on a daily basis and leads to what my esteemed editor at times calls *rse-covering that causes unnecessary costs and, at times, delays to train operations. I was struck by this when reading a tweet from Ken Livingstone’s office about a series of breakdowns on the Jubilee Line, notably the power failure on April 19 that resulted in people being led out of the trains down the tunnel. Livingstone, who is running for the mayor’s office in next year’s election, and has never stopped campaigning since he was defeated in 2008, wrote that the present mayor, Boris Johnson, was to blame for the chaos and, therefore, should pay for it at the polls.

This is truly dangerous territory that invites political interference into operational matters and demonstrates how the Tube has become a political football, a victim of ideologies of both Left and Right. The origins of today’s difficulties lie in history but this is irrelevant to politicians trying to create a soundbite or newspapers interested only in making a story for tomorrow’s paper. The web with its tweets and blogs (and I please guilty, here, of making use of their power), the 24 hour news channels, and the hyperactivity of the stockmarkets all contribute to exacerbating a situation where a considered view of major events, taking into account history and complexity, is almost impossible to put forward.

The truth, therefore, is far more complex. A few facts first. Just as Livingstone was tweeting his self-interested position on the Tube, London Underground announced that record numbers travelled on the Underground in the last financial year. For the first time, in the year to March 31st, the numbers travelling exceed 1.1 billion, which, remarkably, is just under the figure who travel on the national rail network annually, all on a system with just over 400 route miles and 270 stations.

The high level of demand obviously overstretches the system but by and large it copes remarkably well given the limitations imposed by its history.  Recently, though, there have been several major breakdowns and days of disruption in the Tube network, but it is very easy to take these out of context and run the Evening Standard’s favourite headline – sadly no long seen on billboards these days as there are none since it is a free paper –Tube Chaos.

The worst have occurred on the Jubilee line, and are the result of the mess created by the Public Private Partnership brought in, admittedly with opposition from Livingstone, by the Labour government. As part of the PPP deal, Tube Lines, the now defunct company which had the contract for the Piccadilly, Northern and Jubilee lines, was supposed to install automatic train operation, or, for the layman, driverless trains.  Initially, the new system was expected to be installed by March last year, but a series of technical problems means that, at best, it will be completed this summer, but even that now seems optimistic.

While the most recent chaos was due to an overall power supply failure, the constant problems on the Jubilee Line are the result of the installation of automatic train operation. A Transport for London insider told me recently that never again would London Underground accept a resignalling project that required the old system to be turned off before the new one could be tested, which is why there have been so many weekend closures on the Jubilee since 2006 when upgrade work started.

The problems with the Jubilee Line resignalling contributed to the collapse of the PPP contract which was taken back in house by Transport for London last year.  Not surprisingly, performance on the Jubilee has deteriorated markedly. According to the most recent figures, around 95 per cent of scheduled trains have been running, compared with 98 per cent last year. For the network as a whole, the respective figures are 97.5 per cent and 98.2 per cent, a significant reduction, but not one that suggests the system as a whole is falling apart.

To compound the Tube’s recent difficulties, there has been another series of disruptions on the Underground caused by industrial action. This comes in two forms – the big well-advertised set pieces usually in the form of 24 or 48 hour stoppages and, possibly equally damaging, the appalling relationship between parts of the workforce and the management which results in a lack of co-operation and day to day operational difficulties.

That brings us onto the other side of the political coin. While the PPP was dreamt up by political ideologues inspired by Thatcher and Reagan and with no understanding of railways, the day to day problems of the Tube are made worse by narrow-minded trade unions who are still fighting a class war that most of their colleagues abandoned a generation or so ago.

There are, fortunately, remedies for both aspect of the Tube’s difficulties. Indeed, thanks to the abandonment of the PPP, millions, if not billions, will be saved from the maintenance and refurbishment of the system, provided Transport for London can attract the right managers who are strong enough to impose themselves on the way it operates but also work in a more collegiate way rather than the confrontational nature of the PPP. Those same managers, too, need to know both how to talk to the trade unions and how, in polite terms, tell them to p*ss off when they are exceeding their role as representatives of the workers. None of it is easy, but it is not impossible.

The reasons behind the ‘Tube chaos’ are therefore far more complex than suggested in most of the media. Of course there are individual failings and management cock-ups. However, the notion that there is always a simple explanation for something that goes wrong is misleading and could result in precisely the wrong sort of reaction from the railways such as trying to impose a short term solution when actually a long term approach is needed.

This applies to the national rail network, too. Railway companies must resist responding to these media attacks with knee jerk reactions such as Hammond’s ‘review’ of what goes on under motorway bridges. Running railways is a particularly onerous task. It needs dedicated staff who can perform to the same high standard day after day, and maintain their focus. What it does not need is the kind of backbiting and fingerpointing indulged in so readily by the media. The blame game benefits no one, least of all the passengers.

Let me end, therefore, on a story that none of the media picked up because of the absence of suitable candidates for finger pointing . Every year  Professor Andrew Evans of Imperial College presents a paper on rail safety which analyses trends in accidents on the railways since the mid 1960s.

The change is actually quite remarkable. Even as recently as the 1980s, it was expected that there would be a few fatal train crashes every year whereas in the decade of the noughties there were three, not counting those caused by cars getting on the tracks  – Hatfield, Potters Bar and Grayrigg – with a total loss of life of 12. Last year, as has now become commonplaces, there were, again, none (although an accident at a level crossing at Moreton-on-Lugg which caused the death of a motorist was actually caused by errors on the railway). The pure statistics are even more remarkable:  whereas in the 1960s there were around a dozen fatal accidents per billion train kilometres, there are now under one – and each year Professor Evans amends his long term trend downwards to reflect improved safety levels.

The lack of media coverage is, of course, precisely because there is no one to blame. There may be lots of heroes here, even politicians who accepted the need for TPWS and lots of unknown railway managers, but there are no stories about them in the papers.  There is no review, no debate in Parliament, and nothing on TV. That is a great shame because there is actually a very good story here.

  • Paul Holt

    A very good article, which may be why there are no other comments.

    Paragraph 12 above doesn’t make sense.   Suggest “…right managers who are strong enough similar efforts to impose unworkable contracts on the way it operates…” becomes “…right managers who are strong enough…”.   (Looks like “similar efforts to impose unworkable contracts on the way it operates” was pasted in error.)

  • Kfairbrother

    Good points and interesting to compare with the recent Lymington story where the ticket clerk was “blamed” whereas the problem was surely the separation of station staff away from railway operations – to become basically shop assistants. Could we have an equally safe railway at much less cost? I think so!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Paul, have corrected it. Two sentences got crunched into one,I think. 

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