Rail 395: It would be madness to set this flawed system in stone

There was a depressing sense of deja-vu about the scenes at Hatfield in the wake of the latest rail tragedy. CHRISTIAN WOLMAR calls on the Government to suspend the refranchising process before decisions are taken that would enshrine the present deeply flawed and fragmented system into 20-year contracts.

The ghastly pictures of crumpled rail carriages and rescue workers in their familiar orange jackets are almost too awful to bear. The tears of the bereaved huddled on the track, the flowers by the line, the grim-faced railway managers, the Sunday church ceremony – all have become so familiar that it begins to feel like an inevitable routine, the railway’s Groundhog Day.

After Ladbroke Grove, the media hysteria was such that the sounds of the few of us trying to counsel common sense were drowned out. This time it has been different, though. Bernard Jenkin, the Conservatives’ transport spokesman, stopped me in the street outside Parliament after Lord Macdonald’s statement on the crash and said that he thought the debate in the aftermath was much more sensible because people had begun to realise that 100% safety was impossible and that improvements took time to bring about.

Indeed, this time as I went round the studios doing interviews, the questions were more considered and intelligent. The tabloids, however, remained as irresponsible as ever – the Mirror, for example, had on its front page a series of rail accidents including ‘Clapham 35 dead’, which was pretty ridiculous given that, in the intervening dozen years, some 40,000 people have died on Britain’s roads.

While the debate might have been more sober, the events in the aftermath of the accident were no less extraordinary. First, we had the offer to resign by Gerald Corbett, Railtrack’s Chief Executive, and its rejection on the board following an amazing press conference by Pam Warren, the now-famous masked Ladbroke Grove survivor, at which she expressed her support for the man vilified after that crash as being a murderer. And then, to cap it all, Mr Corbett, emboldened by his sudden popularity and fame, started criticising the way the industry was privatised and its complex structure.

As ever, speculation over the causes was rife in the immediate aftermath – suspicion quickly fell on GNER, given that a derailment a few miles down the line two years ago had been caused by a shattered wheel. Two railway managers briefed me on the possibility of terrorism – one who shall remain nameless even suggested there were signs of blast damage – and other suggestions included excessive speed, vandalism and, of course, a broken rail.

Vandalism and terrorism would have been the easiest options for the rail industry but by late that evening it was clear that attention was centring on a broken rail. This had seemed unlikely at first as the front of the train had remained on the track and so, for the same reason, had vandalism and terrorism.

As I have mentioned before in this column, it was always likely, given the obsession with SPADs, ATP and TPWS resulting from the spate of accidents in the 1990s, the next disaster would be caused by something totally different. Indeed, the point which I made when writing about this in RAIL 392 is that the very concentration of safety efforts on the causes of a previous disaster mean that other potential dangers can be neglected. I rarely use italics but I think that point cannot be overemphasised. How many rail inspectors were out checking on signalling when, if Ladbroke Grove had not happened, they might have been looking at the track. That is a question for the inquiry.

So a broken rail it was. In some ways, this accident goes much more to the heart of the railway system than Ladbroke Grove where for a week the coverage was dominated by the sheer horrific nature of the accident and the death toll which initially was thought to be more than 100.

Not surprisingly, the Regulator, showing appropriate sensitivity, postponed his announcement about Railtrack’s second five-year track access regime which had been due two days after the crash, but it still couldn’t have come at a worse time. While the extra money available to Railtrack for investment is to be welcomed, the announcement merely serves to highlight the fact that the very structure of the industry is wrong while, at the same time, perpetuating it.

Hatfield raises questions about the way the industry is run, the incentives which are meant to guide the various companies’ actions and the Government’s rôle in the privatised structure. Moreover, it also raises technical issues that could prove to be a major obstacle for franchise bidders seeking to run faster trains.

Let’s look at the minutiae of what happened from the evidence we know so far. Railtrack’s contractor, Balfour Beatty discovered early this year that the track at that bend was in a poor condition. But scheduled possessions were not available until May and November, so a decision was taken to renew part of the track in each of those periods. There was a clear disincentive to do the work earlier because extra possessions lead to compensation payments to operators. Moreover, it is unclear whether Balfour Beatty or Railtrack has the ultimate say in making the decision. A temporary speed restriction on such an important line would lead to a massive increase in delays when Railtrack is under pressure from the Regulator to improve punctuality under the threat of fines amounting to £10m per 1% extra delay. Therefore, the whole culture mitigates against taking a decision to renew the track early or to impose speed limits.

I am not trying to allocate blame, but instead to show the perverse nature of the system which was created by the regulatory framework set up under privatisation. What local manager will want to take a decision which can cost his or her company millions? Indeed, at the subsequent inquiry, I can envisage some poor hapless lowly engineer being rounded upon by a smartass overpaid barrister for failing to make that decision. It is all very well saying that safety decisions should always err on the side of caution, but that means we end up with a railway that is so inefficient and slow that no one would want to use it.

Well, that may well be what we are going to get over the next few months. Railtrack’s spate of temporary speed restrictions is just the start. There is going to be tremendous pressure on everyone in the system to make the most conservative decision in regard to safety, irrespective of the effect on reliability and punctuality. Partly that has already happened with SPADs as drivers have begun operating in a more defensive manner, ensuring that their approach to red lights is slower, reducing the likelihood of going through them.

Services are going to be disrupted by longer possessions and more precautionary speed limits. The public’s appetite for greater safety is going to be sorely tested as thousands of trains will arrive late. The whole industry will suffer as people forego the railways and return to their cars despite the congestion on the roads.

There is concern that the accident was the result of a new type of metal fatigue caused by high-speed trains which would jeopardise bids for the East Coast main line based on reducing journey times – more likely, according to an engineer friend, it happened because BR stopped grinding rails for several years and Railtrack does so at a much reduced rate compared with a decade ago.

Profitability of the train operators will plummet and, indeed, the Hatfield disaster may spell the end of the five-year railway boom unless the industry pulls together as never before, both to explain to the public what it is doing and why, and to minimise the inevitable disruption through co-operative working.

At the meeting held by industry chiefs in the aftermath of the Hatfield crash, one operator suggested that they all tore up the legal contracts between them and just ‘did what was right’. Of course, he realised that was impossible but it demonstrates the deep frustration with the system that is emerging in the wake of these disasters and readiness to ‘think the unthinkable’, as Mr Corbett put it. Tom Winsor, the Regulator, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, may rant from the sidelines, but the rail industry will now have a trump card on its side – safety.

In the long term, therefore, the main loser from this accident may prove to be Mr Prescott. When Mr Corbett mused about the structure of the industry, saying it had been sold to maximise Treasury proceeds and that there were too many companies involved in it, the DPM jumped in saying : “I have always said that the fragmented, adversarial, blame-culture structure of the railways, which we inherited, encouraged different parts of the industry to pull in different directions, against the interests of passengers. That is why this Government has created the Strategic Rail Authority.”

While everyone agrees that the creation of the SRA is a good idea, contrary to what Mr Prescott suggests it does nothing to address the problems of fragmentation and misdirected incentives highlighted by Mr Corbett (and reiterated, incidentally, not only by Sir Bob Reid, the former Chairman of British Rail, but also by the Tories’ Bernard Jenkin).

Obviously, the last thing the rail industry needs is a complete upheaval and reorganisation and all the uncertainty that would engender. But it does seem madness that through the letting of 20-year franchises we are about to enshrine a structure which is widely accepted as fundamentally flawed just because the Labour Government was too conservative to consider changes when it came to power.

It is a great shame that these issues were not raised three years ago after the Southall crash. Indeed, it almost seems like a sign from the gods that a major accident should happen in the week that the track access regime was about to be announced and a week before a 20-year franchise was about to be allocated for Network SouthCentral. The Government should accept this divine message and put the refranchising process on hold for a few weeks while the alternatives are considered.

Mr Corbett has declined to show us his hand, but here are a couple of thoughts: the Government could take up his offer of a substantial shareholding in Railtrack in order to create a Public-Private Partnership (if it’s OK for the London Tube, why not for the railways?); alternatively, or additionally, Railtrack could go into partnership with train operators to take over parts of the network, thereby recreating an integrated system; or the franchise map could be properly redrawn to create far fewer operators; and so on.

These are only thoughts. If I – or any reader – could come up with a coherent structure for the industry, they would be rewarded with a handsome consultancy from McKinsey’s or PriceWaterhouseCoopers. But at least let’s have time for a debate before signing off these contracts that will perpetuate the fragmentation of the railway.

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