What goes round comes round. Here we go again, with a discussion about vertical integration, the structure of the railways and the pros and cons of privatisation. This not my fault, though I do enjoy the debate, but is a result of the malfunctioning Southern contract and the arrival of Chris Grayling at the Department for Transport.
As I mentioned in my previous column, Grayling has a track record on the railways. He was shadow transport secretary for a couple of years during the Blair era and did a bit of thinking aloud. In particular, he spotted the fact that the worst aspect of privatisation was not the sell-off itself, but the fact that the railway had been split between the infrastructure provider and the operators. Rightly, as I have often argued in this column, that is a fundamental mistake because the railway is essentially an integrated system.
So Grayling has brought a bit of blue skies thinking to the railway. He has stressed he does not want to see a wholesale restructuring or any fundamental changes, but clearly he has concerns about the way the railway is run. When I met him recently, he acknowledged that Network Rail was a prime concern, particularly in terms of its overspending and its inability to bring costs down.
However, the immediate issue on his plate is the chaos on Southern which, as the series of articles in Rail has shown, is complex because it has multiple causes and is proving very difficult to solve. Grayling, who somewhat taken his eye off the ball during the summer, decided action was needed in time for what the French call Le Grand Retour when business and politics return to normal after August (though Brexit has ensured that politics for once did not really stop this summer). So he promised an extra £20m to sort out various causes of delay on the network and appointed Chris Gibb, a Network Rail non-executive director, to bang heads together.
It is a bit unclear what the £20m is for. The Department has specified what some of the money is going to be spent on such as £2m on more response teams to fix faults more quickly and £2.5m on accelerated train maintenance. There is also £900,000 to minimise the impact of bridge strikes and £800,000 in extra signal supervisors to keep trains moving.
Now forgive my cynicism but should not Network Rail and Govia combined be doing all this already? Does it really take extra money to have enough ‘response teams’ or signalling supervisors? In other words, 20 years into the separation of Railtrack (now Network Rail) from the operators, there is still no clear worked out modus operandi between them. Why, too, does it cost more to have ‘accelerated’ train maintenance? While I do not agree with the two mischievous Micks – Whelan of ASLEF and Cash of RMT – who argue that the money is going straight into Govia’s pockets, they are right to question the whole basis of the contract between Govia and the Department.
As an aside, surely it is time to sort out bridge strikes once and for all. As I mentioned recently (Rail 796), installing a simple system of girders before every frequently struck bridge, with bells or some such basic device, is commonplace in India but somehow after nearly two centuries of railway innovation in the UK, we have still not managed to prevent these basic accidents.
As for Chris Gibb, he will have his work cut out. It is fascinating that Grayling has had to go to an old BR hand who happens to have worked for both Network Rail and Virgin in order to sort out problems on the disaggregated railway. There are obvious questions about his role. Will he be able to bang heads together, as Grayling hopes, when there are disagreements between Network Rail and Govia? What will his relationship be with existing management? And will he be able to sort out how the two sides – one owned by the government, one a private company – divide up the bill that will result from his interventions?
All this is rather strange, indeed, very strange. If any of you, readers of this column, still harbour the notion that privatisation freed the railways from government control and has given them far more leeway than under the days of BR, the appointment of Gibb and the level of micromanagement will surely disabuse you. The very fact that the Department is forking out money earmarked for such detailed tasks as employing extra response teams or additional signalling supervisors suggest that the railway is micromanaged in a way that would have been unthinkable in BR’s day.
The alliance between South West Trains and Network Rail which was supposed to be the way forward for franchising fell apart after three years precisely over these issues. Grayling told me that some benefits from that arrangement still exist, such as a joint control room. That is true, but as he probably suspects, the only real solution is ultimately integration between operations and infrastructure, the only sensible way to run a railway.
All this has been given added prominence as a result of what has now become known as #traingate, Jeremy Corbyn’s controversial little video moaning about ram-packed trains. Corbyn’s first mistake was that he singled out the wrong sort of train. While there are issues on InterCity trains, particularly the daft pricing structure and the sharp distinction between peak and off peak trains which can literally add £100 or more to the cost of the journey, the vast majority of the serious overcrowding is on commuter trains in and out of London and other major cities.
His second mistake was to suggest that nationalisation would solve the kind of problem he had encountered which made him sit on the floor. This was the really dishonest part of this episode.
As I argued in Rail 783, renationalisation cannot take place quickly and will have little immediate impact. I am firmly of the view that re-integrating the railway would save considerable sums, such as ending the ridiculous compensation payments paid to operators when work is carried out from which they will ultimately benefit, but there is no way it will magic up extra capacity rapidly or solve some of the fundamental overcrowding problems. Indeed, if ticket prices were brought down, as Corbyn suggests, there will be more ‘ram-packed’ trains.
So, we now have a situation where the two main political parties (Labour remains that despite its present state which is more chaotic than services on Southern) are both thinking about restructuring the railway. Labour can be discounted for now, though its interventions still stimulate debate, but Grayling’s frustration at the present system may well lead to change. He is, too, much more sceptical about devolution than his predecessor (and so is the new Chancellor Philip Hammond compared with George Osborne) and therefore we may see less emphasis on it. So as I mentioned at the start, the wheel turns, albeit slowly, and it will be evolution rather than revolution, but I suspect changes are afoot.
I have had a great response to my invitation to readers to suggest stations which would benefit from a new name, after my item on Tube stations which have confusing monikers.
Graham Larkbey, for example, favoured the sensible idea of giving stations the names of the places they are in such as Battersea Junction rather than Clapham Junction and Harlesden Junction instead of Willesden Junction. Lewisham North would be a better name than St John’s and he argues that all the various Walthamstow stations have confusing names. I also liked his idea of changing Woolwich Dockyard to Woolwich West – since there is no dockyard anywhere near – and Harley Street rather than Regent’s Park, as it is a long way for the zoo and handy for Britain’s premier medical street (though not actually in it!).
Barry Coward bats for Merton, arguing that none of the stations in the area bear the name when, in fact, the borough has four stations. South Wimbledon, born of the railway companies’ desire to be associated with affluent areas, would be the best candidate. Moving out of London, he bemoans the fact that the station serving his local village, Kirton-in-Lindsey is wrongly called Kirton Lindsey but apparently Northern Rail claim it would be prohibitively expensive to change it. A really good idea from David Holt is to rename Lambeth North as Imperial War Museum, boosting tourism to this great institution.
There was no shortage of amusing suggestions. Nigel Pennick warned that if there were a public poll to name a station, we might end up with a Trainstation Mactrainstationface but it does not have quite the same ring as Boaty Macboatface which won an online poll to name a new merchant navy vessel. He also suggested ‘Five miles from Anywhere’ an accurate description of Shippea Hill station in Cambridgeshire.
The prize, though, goes to Brian Gonland who points out that the village of Knockholt is more than three miles away from the station of that name (Dent on the Settle – Carlisle line is even further, I seem to recall) and it is much closer to a place called Pratt’s Bottom. It would, as he points out, be the rudest station name in Britain, and so the campaign starts here. Give us Pratt’s Bottom! Keep the ideas coming.