A decade or so book ago I wrote a book called On the Wrong Line – How Incompetence and Ideology wrecked Britain’s railways. I think the two ‘i’ words are in danger of wrecking the railway again which, as Nigel Harris mentioned in his editorial in the last issue of Rail is in danger of suffering from a perfect storm.
The much trailed and leaked speech by Chris Grayling on December 6th was the hallmark of a minister desperate to show he is doing something when he is hamstrung by his own ideology and incompetence – both his own and that of various other players in the industry.
Let’s start with ideology. Grayling has a visceral loathing of the public sector, perhaps because he once worked for the BBC. As Justice Minister, he actually privatised the probation service despite the fact that its various regional offices had all been assessed as running well and that it is a government function that seems particularly ill-suited to being run for profit. A chunk of the service was handed over to Sodexo, a French company best known for supplying catering services with predictable results as it soon failed an audit by the very Justice Ministry which had sold it off. His other famous – or rather infamous – policy was to prevent books being sent to prisoners despite widespread recognition that helping convicts to learn to read and write reduces recidivism.
Grayling’s excuse at the time was that the move was to enhance security in prisons but this did not wash with the thousands of authors – myself included – who wrote to protest a decision that, thankfully has now been reversed. I mention this little tale because Grayling was in the dodgy excuses game again last week when he was explaining his decision not to hand over a chunk of London suburban and regional services to Transport for London, a scheme that had been negotiated by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. It was widely agreed, across the political spectrum and among passenger groups that this was a good idea. As I have written in this column previously (Rail 812), Khan would have had to put in new resources to ensure the new arrangement was successful but all in all it was a good idea.
Grayling said that he had decided not to sanction the transfer because there would be a democratic deficit for people living in, say, Guildford who would have no say in the services they use. However, not only did Surrey and Kent county councils agree to the arrangement, but the good burghers of Guildford, Woking and wherever do not have any say in what South West Trains provides at the moment which is determined by the specification laid out by the Department for Transport. In any case, London Underground and London buses run services beyond London’s borders. So that was just a load of old cobblers.
And to Grayling’s embarrassment, that became all too apparent when a letter he wrote three years ago to Johnson was leaked to the Evening Standard revealing that Grayling did not want a large chunk of London’s rail services ‘out of the clutches of a future Labour mayor’ even though he did not ‘have any fears over the immediate future’ – in other words, while there was a Tory in City Hall.
This is incompetent for two reasons. First, you should never put something as potentially politically embarrassing as that down on paper particularly in a letter to a flakey character like Johnson. Secondly, if he really is making decisions on such a political basis, he is opening himself to judicial review. He will now no longer be trusted as even MPs on his own side, such as Bromley’s Bob Neill, a barrister, have argued he should be sacked.
Grayling had hoped that this little bit of vindictiveness against Khan would be buried under the news from the rest of his announcement, set out eventually, after the leaks, in a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank where the RMT even staged a picket. They were concerned at an extension of privatisation and at the break up of Network Rail, but, in fact, Grayling was suggesting no such think.
The newspapers had been briefed that Network Rail would face competition and that Grayling would embark on a process of reintegrating the railway. The press was fooled, running headlines about the break up of Network Rail and suggesting that some lines might be fully privatised as integrated entities. It was, of course, all nonsense. Grayling had merely decided that East West Rail, the new bit of line needed to complete the Oxford – Cambridge link would be built by an organisation other than Network Rail (my bet is it ends up being maintained by the state-owned company anyway like High Speed One) and that a couple of new franchises would be run as alliances, much like the failed experiment on South West Trains. It might have been a red rag to the unions but in fact it was just so much bull, a bit of tinkering about and a reaffirmation of much of what Network Rail is doing anyway, as was confirmed a couple of days later by Mark Carne, the chief executive.
Grayling is, of course, on to something. When he was shadow Transport secretary a decade ago, he realised that the separation of the railway into infrastructure and operations was a mistake and that the best way to run the industry is through a sole integrated company. The trouble is Grayling is hoist by his own petard. He would not countenance the obvious solution to creating integrated companies, which is, as the Labour party is seeking, to simply let the franchises run out and merge with Network Rail. The reason, of course, is that this would mean a de facto renationalisation, which would be as anathema to Grayling as having lunch with Ken Livingstone. He is certainly not the man about to re-create British Rail.
Nor can he suggest the full scale privatisation of Network Rail. That is politically unpalatable and in practice difficult and complex. It is unlikely, in any case, that the private sector would want to take on the risk given the fate of Railtrack.
Therefore Grayling’s big announcement was a damp squib. All he could do was pretty much follow what Network Rail was doing already, which was to put more emphasis on alliances and improving the lot of passengers. His clever media manipulation, however, meant he was rewarded with a few nice headlines and TV coverage but the impact on the railways will be negligible.
Rail union banners deserve a home
When I travelled to Newton Aycliffe a couple of weeks before Xmas for the Hitachi train launch (about which much more in the next issue), I met a couple of historians, Gerald Slack and Michael O’Neill, who are trying to find a good permanent home for one of the most beautiful trade union banners I have seen. The banner, which depicts a classical woman’s figure swathed in a white dress beckoning workers to a better life, was made in 1915 for the Bishop Auckland (No 1) branch of the National Union of Railwaymen by the country’s foremost manufacturer, George Tutill and Co which, incidentally, is still in business.
The banner was given to the small Bishop Auckland Station History Group by the National Railway Museum which, apparently, is wary of holding overtly political material in its collection. It is now on hung temporarily in a community centre in Bishop Auckland but the group is keen to find a permanent place for it to be displayed.
The group has two other banners. One a relatively modern one but the other, probably dating from the 1920s, is in less good condition but is equally interesting historically, as it belonged to the NUR’s Shildon No 2 Branch. It shows a hand painted depiction of the works on one side but requires around £10,000 for restoration. The pair are anxious to ensure the banners are displayed in the North East as part of the growing heritage movement there which is becoming a key tourist attraction for the region and is an important recognition of the key role the region played in both developing the railways and ensuring their spread. The third is a more modern banner but all three are a key part of railway history. They deserve a permanent display and would be an undoubted tourist attraction.
Anyone interested in donating or helping find a home for the banners, contact The Bishop Auckland Station History Group at 29 Oaklea Mews, Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham,DL5 6JP or Gerald Slack, who has written a book about the banner, at firstname.lastname@example.org