Potters Bar Accident (transcript)

Interview: Christian Wolmar, author of Broken Rails, and George Muir, Director General of the Association of Train Operating Companies discuss whether the structure of the rail industry is responsible for its accident record.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first, Potters Bar, at least we now have a pretty good idea of what caused that train to come off the rails – a problem with the points – but that raises a number of questions, some of them for the politicians to answer. The Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers said this morning that it was a one off accident ‘a unique event’ and there’s plenty of money for repairs and maintenance – is all that true.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman is Don Foster and he’s in our Bristol studio, but let’s turn first to two rail industry experts. The author and journalist Christian Wolmar and the Director General of the Association of Train Operating Companies, George Muir.

Christian Wolmar, what wide lessons are there to be learned from this, let’s look at the structure of the railways first.

CHRISTIAN WOLMAR: Well, I think we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. There’s two possible causes for this, one is sabotage, in which case there’s no lessons to be learned, it is just a terrible thing, except security.

HUMPHRYS: Just deal with that one very quickly first of all and we’ll get rid of it, because most people seem to think it’s a pretty wild guess. Could a couple of drunken yobs done that damage or would you need to have a pretty skilled knowledge and a lot of effort.

WOLMAR: No, it’s not vandalism, it’s sabotage and I use that word advisedly and that’s because it would take some effort and a little bit of knowledge about the rail industry. You’d also need a very big spanner and quite a lot of physical effort, it couldn’t be done in a couple of minutes. So it’s not vandalism but it could quite easily be sabotage.

HUMPHRYS: But there’s no obvious reason why that should have happened?

WOLMAR: No, but I mean there are a lot of crazy people around, who do a lot of crazy things as you know John.

HUMPHRYS: But as you say, no lessons to be learned from that. So let’s look at the wider implications, possible wider implications.

WOLMAR: Now, if this is down to maintenance, then it really is trouble again for the rail industry because only eighteen months ago we had an accident five miles down the track, where there…it was caused by a broken rail and that was down to faulty maintenance and people ignoring that broken rail for quite a long time, finally snapped, killed four people. So, if we have the same kind of accident five miles down the track, eighteen months later, also caused by faulty maintenance, it raises the whole question again about how the industry is structured and having all these contractors and sub-contractors on the industry, whereas before we had British Rail and a unified structure.

HUMPHRYS: So is that what we are talking about, the separation of the people who operate the trains, from the people who take care of the track, that’s the big issue as far as you are concerned.

WOLMAR: Absolutely, the key point about privatisation was not only that it sold off the railways to the private sector, but in a way the most damaging thing it did was to fragment the railway and to break it up and railways need a unified system. You need to have somebody at the top basically giving orders, it’s like a military operation. The best run railways in the world are places like Switzerland and Japan where they do have a unified structure. Of course you occasionally use contractors, but here they rely on contractors so much and that would be put in question again.

HUMPHRYS: Right, George Muir, do you agree with that? As the man who speaks for the train operating companies.

GEORGE MUIR: Well just now I’m still trying to get my mind round the horrific feature of this accident and what does seem to be this extraordinary sort of one off circumstances of two nuts not being where they should be. Now, if it is a question of faulty maintenance, I would like to get away from the debate as to structure because I…

HUMPHRYS: But it might be crucial to do, as Christian Wolmar said.

MUIR: Indeed it might be but I think it’s in danger of being a fundamental distraction because whatever the structure is, whether everybody is employed by one employer or by two or by three or by more, eventually there’s got to be good trained people doing the job. Whether the person who does the job is employed by British Rail or by Jarvis, they’ve got to do the job.

HUMPHRYS: That’s fine but what Christian Wolmar is talking about is a line of command here and that’s the important thing. Would the train operating companies, if the political decision were taken that perhaps there ought to be a reunified railway, would the train operating companies be interested in that?

MUIR: I think it’s a distraction. I can’t say that it would be better or worse but I don’t think that’s a solution to the issue. I think it’s terribly important that we focus on solving the real problem and not solving…

HUMPHRYS: But it maybe that you cannot solve the real problem unless you can solve this question of the structure of the railways.

MUIR: Of course you can solve the problem. It is wholly possible to have a major company like Railtrack with good control over major subcontractors, dozens of other industries do it, the off-shore oil industry – BP doesn’t own everybody on an off-shore industry. This is a dangerous distraction from getting on with real jobs.

WOLMAR: George, I think the whole way the industry was privatised may well have been responsible for nearly all, with the exception of Great Heck, all the accidents after privatisation – Southall and Paddington…

HUMPHRYS: ..but we had accidents before privatisation.

WOLMAR: We did have accidents but if you look at these accidents carefully as I have done, you see that in each case there’s failure of communication between the different parts of the rail industry and the problem is it’s not like the oil industry. Trains are running the whole time, they are always under the command of the signal people, it’s not other industries where it’s a much more relaxed flow. The railways are an intense industry.

HUMPHRYS: It’s a powerful argument isn’t it Mr Muir.

MUIR: I don’t think it is, I think it is a dangerous distraction from the real issue which is set about good training, good command, good control systems, flowing through of the maintenance and it is wholly true that this can be done without everybody being employed by the same person.

HUMPHRYS: Quick thought about money then because obviously maintenance is hugely expensive, is there enough money in the system to do the job that ought to be done?

WOLMAR: Oddly enough there is a vast amount of money going into the industry at the moment, far more than under British Rail. The trouble is again, because of this system, a lot of it is being wasted. For example, the West Coast Mainline was supposed to be re-furbished at the cost of two, three billion pounds, the price seems to now be somewhere near ten billion pounds and rising and nobody quite knows where all that money goes and that again is a problem with the structure.


MUIR: Well, indeed, I have to unfortunately, Christian, I have to simply disagree again. This is not a structural issue, there is a lot of money going into the railway but I think what we haven’t appreciated is the increased tonnage and use of the railway. The big Intercity lines, for instance the Great West Line and the North East Lines now have thirty per cent more traffic and tonnage than they did six years’ ago and on essentially the same network and what we do know is that the use of the network increases the requirement for maintenance renewals. So we are really hammering this network as it’s been hammered never before and put West Coast on one side which is a very difficult problem, but for the rest of the network, it shouldn’t surprise us that an immense amount , more money is required to handle this vastly greater volume.

HUMPHRYS: Alright, thank you both for that for the moment.

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