Rail 398: No one – and everyone – to blame for rail’s ‘Troubles’

All the major players in the railway – the Government, operators, Railtrack, SRA and HSE – have emerged with little credit from ‘The Troubles’ of the past two months, argues CHRISTIAN WOLMAR who repeats his call for a major restructuring of the industry so that it can make a co-ordinated response to crises.

Having just returned from India where I travelled on one of the world’s most remarkable narrowgauge lines, the Darjeeling Himalayan railway, it would be nice to treat readers to a gentle description of my adventures on the sub-continent. There was the time I missed the special ‘sleeper’ from Calcutta to the north because it left two hours early and the heart-warming day I spent traipsing round the slums of Calcutta looking at drop-in centres and schools funded by the Railway Children, the industry’s charity of which I am a trustee and which is clearly making a difference to thousands of children’s lives.

And there was the fascinating experience of being hauled up 7,000ft into the Himalayas by steam engines which are more than a century old and which function remarkably well even though they look like the model for Thomas the Tank Engine.

But needs must. I clearly have to write about what will be called, when it is all over, ‘The Troubles’. The Darjeeling Himalayan railway is dubbed the ‘toy train’ but the events of the past few weeks have made most people think that it is the British rail network that is Mickey Mouse. Indeed, the public has long thought of the railways as a joke but now we are beyond laughing about them. This is not a comedy, but a tragedy which has not only threatens to cause lasting damage to the railways but even to the economy as a whole. I will look at the long-term implications of The Troubles in the next issue, but here I will confine myself to examining what went wrong and assessing the performance of the various players in attempting to tackle the crisis.

The Government

First, the Government. Oh dear. The Troubles have exposed just about everything that is wrong with the Government’s policy and its approach, not just on railways but on transport in general. On the overall political level, It has demonstrated the impossibility of John Prescott’s job. The Deputy Prime Minister spent more than a week in The Hague trying to sort out the world’s weather while the rail crisis was deepening. He then came back home in thunderous mood, facing a rebellion in the Lords over the part-privatisation of the air traffic control system and the next day had to launch his Rural White Paper, while simultaneously arranging a rail recovery committee. This demonstrates that while there are synergies between transport and environment, the huge Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, created to soothe Mr Prescott’s ego, is simply too big for one person to manage.

Moreover, Mr Prescott seems to think the railways are still run by British Railways and owned by the Government. Instituting a regime of almost daily meetings attended by the industry’s senior executives to organise the recovery is confirmation of Mr Prescott’s megalomania but, in practice, is futile.

The Government has repeatedly refused to take responsibility for the railways, eschewing Railtrack’s offer of becoming a major shareholder and abandoning its pre-election pledge of renationalisation. Yet, ministers have now realised that the public still feels the Government is responsible for the state of the railways and that the issue is highly politically charged.

So, score so far; 2/10. How can it get out of the mess? Quietly put the refranchising process on hold and work on a plan for a coherent structure for the industry but for goodness’ sake do not reveal that is what you are doing. Then, after the election and the Cullen report has come out, launch it as a new plan for the railways for the 21st century, having carefully lubricated all the changes with large amounts of cash.

The train operators

Secondly there are the train operators. Oh dear, again. The key issue has been information or, rather, lack of it. Some operators just seem to have given up. While it is great that there is now a national rail website which connects with all the operators, the information is often out of date or just wrong. This happened to me on a Saturday a couple of weeks ago when I tried to get the Thameslink from London to Brighton. The timetable on the site bore no relation to the one that was operating.

I know life has not exactly been easy for the operators but the crisis has exposed the narrowness of their focus and their failure to co-ordinate their response. The operators will have a very hard task in winning back customers because of their failings during the crisis. While there have been encouraging reports of passengers being provided with taxis, the overall response has not been good, with many instances of replacement bus services not even being used. “Make your own way there” is not the best advertisement for the industry.

The operators have been shown up to be parsimonious. This is hardly surprising given they are privately owned, but they should have learnt that occasionally it pays to be seen to be generous. Score so far, 4/10. To redeem the situation, operators need to make a lot of grand gestures, with special rail days, free travel for children, special discount offers of weekly season tickets and lots of other marketing palaver once things get back to normal or near normal. There should also be some price cuts. Virgin will simply not be able to get away with its exorbitant early-morning fares in trying to regain its business travellers who will have become used to the service standards offered by the airlines.

The Strategic Rail Authority

Then there is the Strategic Rail Authority which has finally been able to shed its ‘shadow’ moniker now the Transport Bill is law. But maybe it should also drop the other ‘S’ in its acronym because the organisation seems to have gone AWOL during this crisis. Apart from a good speech by Sir Alastair Morton, there has been no sense of direction from the SRA. It has not been seen to put pressure on the operators to perform better, nor has it come up with any innovative solutions to the problems. So, 3/10 chaps and just try to put your heads above the parapet.


Finally, there is Railtrack. Despite having a long conversation with its most senior railwayman, Richard Middleton, now appointed Technical Director (after having threatened to resign because he did not want to report to Jonson Cox, the new Chief Operating Officer with just three months’ experience of the industry), I remain utterly convinced that Railtrack has totally over reacted. Indeed, Mr Middleton accepted under BR, it would have been different: “I think we would have imposed the speed limits but we would have taken them off much more quickly.” The Chairman would have made been able to assess the risk and make decisions about what timetables to run.

Railtrack failed to do that. As Sir Alastair Morton put it, Railtrack exported the risk to other companies because that’s what its lawyers and advisers insisted it did. Mr Middleton confirmed this view. When asked whether Railtrack was aware that people had fled to their cars where they were dying at the rate of one per week according to Professor Andrew Evans, he said: “That’s not our decision. We cannot take that risk. It is a political decision. If the Prime Minister wanted it, then he should say that he wants the trains running normally irrespective of the fact that there may be another accident.”

But Railtrack has not necessarily acted even in its own best interest. As one operator put it: “Gerald Corbett completely lost the plot by imposing the speed restrictions. He should have assessed the issue in financial terms when weighing up the alternatives. Instead of imposing the restrictions, he should have said we are carrying out checks, but in the meantime the railway keeps running. Instead, he has made a decision that could cost Railtrack upwards of £250m and God knows how much goodwill. We pay Railtrack £2bn a year to take these risks. That’s their job every day.” Railtrack’s score can therefore only be 1/10 and that’s for promoting Richard Middleton. And to redeem itself, just get the bloody trains moving again. No ifs or buts. Take control of the industry, tell the Health & Safety Executive Railtrack will assess the risks and get the public onside.

While on the subject of the Health & Safety Executive, its rôle has not exactly been heroic either. Although it was Railtrack’s decision to impose the speed limits, removing them requires HSE approval. This is madness. It is like those parents who put their unruly children into care voluntarily and find that they cannot get them back home again without proving themselves as fit parents. In either case, it is a disincentive to be honest about one’s failings. It is just the sort of narrow safety-first view preventing new trains from coming on to the tracks because there is a tiny risk of interference with signalling, and yet they are much safer than the ones they are replacing if there were a crash. The HSE must begin to take its decisions from a wider perspective.

The biggest lesson was identified by Sir Alastair Morton and, in a way, demonstrates that no particular individual or organisation is to blame – there is no one in the industry who can take responsibility for a crisis such as this. Railtrack should really take on that rôle but it does not feel it has the legal powers. Mr Middleton told me that if, for example, the sea wall collapsed at Dawlish, Railtrack would want to operate a particular timetable but it couldn’t without first seeking the permission of the three train operators and the freight company which use the track. “We can’t direct train services to be cancelled or to operate. There would be a debate and horsetrading,” he said, which, of course, would mean it would be difficult to ensure the optimum service for passengers.

All this explains why I remain of the view that the industry, as presently constructed, is unworkable and that it needs a major restructuring – and specifically a recasting of Railtrack – despite protestations that this would cause short-term chaos and a loss of morale. But I have touched on that issue many times already and I leave further discussion to the New Year when the dust has settled.

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