Rail 827: The benefits of renationalisation will be slow to emerge

Labour is, unfortunately, not going to win the general election so the plans to renationalise the railways are in many ways irrelevant. However, just by raising the debate, its manifesto has highlighted various dysfunctional aspects of the railway which will not go away even when Mrs May is back home with her hubby and carrying out their respective boy and girl jobs in No 10.

This is because rail renationalisation has a lot of resonance among the public. Survey after survey shows that people do not like the current structure and want a return to British Rail, even if they do not realise that Network Rail is already under state ownership and they do not fully understand what renationalisation would mean. Even the listeners to Talk Radio, not exactly a haven for leftwingers, responded 80 – 20 in a Twitter poll in favour of bringing the railways back into public ownership.

I’m not going to go over the arguments here as they have often been well rehearsed in Rail.  However, it is clear that the public senses that not all is right in the railways and they are quite correct. Over the past few weeks I have had several emails that are the modern equivalents of the anonymous brown paper envelope I used to receive with great relish as a national newspaper journalist. They tell me of concerns and complaints on the way that the railway is functioning occasionally raising safety matters but more often drawing attention to inefficiency and, in management speak, ‘sub-optimal’ practices.

It is very clear from my informants that Network Rail is not a happy place to work. The move of so many jobs to Milton Keynes – ironically in transport terms the worst city in the United Kingdom as it was built entirely to accommodate motor cars – meant a great loss of expertise. Many experienced railway people chose redundancy instead and they have often been replaced by what insiders call in rather derogatory terms ‘people off the street’. Expertise in all facets of Network Rail operations, from project management and engineering to timetabling and planning has been lost. Interestingly, there are few complaints about Mark Carne, the chief executive but rather a general dissatisfaction with upper and middle management.

Among staff with a memory of British Rail, there is also deep frustration at the limited role of Network Rail and over the rigid separation between operations and infrastructure in the industry. This limits the ability of staff to influence what is happening on the railway and consequently their job satisfaction.

The key issue here, and where it connects with the public’s perception that not all is right on the railways, is the lack of a guiding mind for the railways known to the public as the ‘fat controller’. In his editorial in Rail 825, my esteemed colleague Nigel Harris was right to float the idea that Network Rail should take on a strategic role. Given the public’s desire for renationalisation, the big irony about the current situation is the extent of influence of the Government, and specifically the Department for Transport, in the present day railway.

I was struck by this when taking a trip down to Brighton from St Pancras and finding myself on the new Siemens Class 700 for the first time. Boy, are they uncomfortable. The seats are hard, there is no leg room, no charging points for devices and they shake you about almost as much as an old Pacer. When I tweeted this out, I was inundated with agreement about the discomfort and with explanations about the background to the procurement. The trains were commissioned by the Department for Transport, which controversially rejected the Bombardier bid, nearly ending rolling stock manufacturing in the UK. Consequently, it was the Department’s decision to cut costs which has resulted in the stock being so awful and not ‘fit for purpose’. The local commuters are up in arms and avoid the trains whenever they can which has proved rather difficult given that Southern operate the trains into Victoria, the alternative to using Thameslink (which is part of the same franchise but not hit by the recent Southern industrial relations breakdown).

Indeed, the Southern dispute is another example of where the railway is badly missing a guiding mind. If experienced railway managers had been in charge, the management contract for the Thameslink Southern and Great Northern deal would never have mandated the deal to downgrade the guards’ role (indeed, they probably would not have sanctioned this vastly oversized contract in the first place). Instead, they would have talked with the unions, thrashed out a deal, and implemented it with the co-operation of the workers as happened on the London Overground. It was because the deal was imposed on the company and the workforce by the government through the civil servants who run the railway that the mess they are in was created. The sooner the railway is removed from Marsham Street, the home of the Department of Transport, and given to experienced railway managers, who have long term commitment to the industry, the better.

That means creating a strategic railway body between the government and the industry. The ridiculously named Rail Delivery Group cannot perform that function but the question is whether Network Rail can? It would need to be a very different type of organisation as in a sensible world it would operate some services itself either temporarily, when there is major work being carried out, or as a benchmark to ascertain the real costs of operating the railway. Even Chris Grayling recognises that an integrated railway is the best structure for the industry.

There is no option but to give Network Rail the strategic role, as Nigel has suggested. Creating another body would simply add to the expensive complexity of the industry. We already have the Railway Safety & Standards Board, the Rail Delivery Group, the Office of Rail and Road, two bodies dealing with suppliers and numerous other agencies with a toe in the railway pool.

Expanding Network Rail’s role and remit is probably the least worst option. Certainly the current situation of having civil servants making the wrong decisions about how hard the seats on commuter trains should be is totally unsatisfactory and unsustainable. Just to add further complexity, however, Network Rail is trying to devolve its functions and Carne has talked about Network Rail having a smaller ‘centre’. If Network Rail were to have a more strategic role, it would actually need a stronger ‘centre’. I think that is the case anyway. As I have written before in several recent issues, Network Rail needs to improve its procurement and project management processes and that requires strong central direction. One of the complaints of my informants is precisely that there are not clear enough signals from the top of Network Rail.

The question of how to structure the railways has been troubling politicians and railway managers alike ever since the Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened in 1830. What we have now is clearly not working and there are two options – making Network Rail stronger or weaker. My view is that we must go for the former. A strong, strategic Network Rail, with plenty of experienced railway managers at the top who know precisely what direction to take will solve many of the current difficulties.

 

When will they ever learn? (episode 64).

 

Here we go again. The Scottish Parliament has passed legislation to merge the British Transport Police north of the border with its general police force, Police Scotland. This seems to have been stimulated by a desire to make the force more accountable and easier to administer, and was initiated by the ruling Scot Nats for reasons that seem overtly political rather than practical. They suggest that it would allow the Scottish government to have ‘greater control’, the same fatuous argument deployed by the Brexiteers.

We have been here before. Numerous times. There have been regular attempts this century to scrap the British Transport Police and merge it in with local police forces, but they have quite rightly been fought off by the force. The attempts at merger were scuppered by the clear arguments from the BTP that its officers have specific skills that are needed to manage incidents on the railway.

There is no doubt that if ordinary police, with no knowledge of the railway, arrived at an incident such as a fatality on the track, they would have little idea of how to ensure the matter was dealt with speedily. Instead, there would be long delays and unnecessary line closures while the investigation took place.

Railway workers, the unions, the police force itself and many politicians all oppose the move which seems to be based on narrow political concerns. As the local Chief Superintendent told the committee of MSPs, whenever Police Scotland are involved in an incident, it takes twice as long to clear up. So expect a drop in performance north of the border if this daft move goes through.

 

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