Rail 437: Goodbye, Mr Byers – and hello to a new ‘safe pair of hands’…

As the railways acquire yet another new political master following the departure of the luckless Stephen Byers, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR warns his successor that there’s more to the job than just making the trains run on time and keeping them out of the headlines.

My last column ended with the remark that Potters Bar had made the situation in the railways even more fluid than before the accident. Well, the not entirely unexpected bombshell of Stephen Byers’s resignation further reduces the viscosity of the liquid. It is, of course, impossible to comment on Alistair Darling’s ability to handle the job, though he has previously expressed interest in the subject of transport, but make no mistake: the loss of Byers will be felt keenly throughout the industry.

Byers was a friend of the railways. He had lanced the Railtrack boil, arm-twisted Richard Bowker into taking on the job of Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, begun to build a more coherent structure for the railways and, amazingly, won the admiration of many in the industry for his behind-the-scenes work in trying to sort out the mess left by the Tories and his obstreperous predecessor, John Prescott. Contrast his measured reaction to the Potters Bar crash, where his calm message was that the railways remained the safest form of travel, with that of Prescott’s ridiculous “we will not rest until the railways are 100% safe” line.

Byers had embarked on a tour around the country in connection with the creation of a regional tier of government and was expressing very positive views about reopening parts of the rail network. In Leicester last month, in answer to a question from David Bill of RailFuture, Byers said the Government remained committed to expansion and that, where justified, there was every case to be made for reinstating lines where trackbeds still exist and in particular for reinstating passenger services where lines are now freight. That was a positive line which hopefully his successor will follow.

That said, it is impossible to exonerate Byers from the myriad mistakes he made. He was a flawed man, who did not seem to learn from his errors. Already at the Department of Trade and Industry he had earned a reputation for being not quite credible. He will be more remembered for silly rows over when he learnt about BMW’s desire to dump Rover, rather than for the fact that he brokered a deal which saved the company and thousands of jobs. Similarly, on the railways, he will be remembered more for his dissembling over why he foreclosed on Railtrack rather than the fact that he had begun to sort out the incoherent structure of the industry.

Indeed, Byers’s legendary cool was part of the problem. If only he had got up and said, “Oops, I got it a bit wrong there”, he would not have been so mercilessly hounded by the media. Of course, his biggest mistake had nothing to do with substantive transport issues. It was his failure not to have sacked Jo Moore the minute her infamous memo about burying bad news in, as it were, the rubble of the World Trade Centre became public, though some political commentators still say that this was a Blair decision.

His other error was over the handling of the Railtrack takeover. Here was an opportunity for unparalleled good coverage, as the move was popular both with the electorate and with much of the rail industry. But he blew it, much to the consternation of those civil servants who supported the move, by making macho statements about not compensating shareholders from the Government purse. A cannier line would have been to say that since the Government sold the shares at well over the £2.80 at which they stood on the fateful October weekend when Byers pushed the company into administration, then it was getting a good deal and therefore he would pay whatever was necessary to regain control of the rail infrastructure. Partly, of course, he was hamstrung by his loyalty to the Blair project which is based on a ‘private is good, public is bad’ agenda, however much that is denied.

The most sensible way of ending the Railtrack mess would simply have been to have allowed the share price to drop and then to have reached an agreement with the shareholders over a reasonable price, which would have been well below the £3.90 the Government received for them in 1996.

Byers’s agenda is now, inevitably, stalled as Darling will take some weeks to mug up on his brief. The reshuffle has been accompanied by a couple of important developments. Darling has brought along with him the Permanent Secretary from his previous department, Work and Pensions, Rachel Lomax, who swapped jobs with her predecessor, Richard Mottram. This is unprecedented. Permanent Secretaries are not like football managers’ assistants who follow doggedly in their boss’s footsteps. Maybe Darling doesn’t like swearing. More likely, having worked closely with Lomax on keeping the pensions issue – a political football potentially quite as big as the railways – out of the limelight, he wanted to maintain the partnership.

One of Byers’s problems was his innate distrust of civil servants, and clearly Darling is not going to make the same mistake. Indeed, the fact that Darling didn’t want Mottram, made famous for putting more expletives in one sentence than the average punk rocker, suggests that Byers’s lack of trust in his civil servants was not entirely misplaced. By having as the top person a trusted colleague, the message to the civil service is clear: “I want to work with you but you better not mess me around.”

The other significant aspect of the reshuffle is that transport has got its own department, hiving off local government and the regions to John Prescott. Ironically, Prescott ends up five years into Blair’s Government with a department one quarter the size of the grand Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions created specially to suit his over-large ego. It was always a daft idea to fatten up the transport department with a whole lot of other important portfolios such as environment, local government and housing, and this has proved especially true since transport has shot up the political agenda in the past year and is set to remain so.

Darling is what in politics is termed ‘a safe pair of hands’. That used to be the moniker given to John MacGregor, the Tory Transport Secretary who piloted through the rail privatisation legislation a decade ago and who proved anything but. Darling’s mission on the railways given to him by Blair will not be anything grand or ambitious. It will simply be to do to the railways what he did to the pensions issue – kill it as a source of political controversy.

Blair’s private agenda for rail focuses on two targets: sort out the Underground, which he thinks is being done through the Public Private Partnership, and make trains run on time. Note: not, sort out the structure of the industry, determine the role the railways should play in the economy, create a high-speed network to match those in Europe or, even, boost usage. No, Blair’s project is unambitious and simplistic, redolent of another fellow with a slightly inflated view of his own importance, Mussolini: make the trains run on time.

That, therefore, will be Alastair Darling’s aim. It is up to the industry and passengers’ groups to persuade him that there is more to the railways than merely getting them off the political agenda. Indeed, if Darling’s sights are set so low at the outset, it is highly likely that he will not even achieve that limited aim. He will quickly find that you can’t improve performance in the railways without ensuring they are better co-ordinated and that the various players are incentivised to work together rather than against each other. That entails a reexamination of the structure and… regular readers know the rest of the story. Indeed, No. 10 has recently toyed with the idea of working towards vertical integration, and the Potters Bar crash has led the PM to take an interest in the way maintenance contracts are let out.

There will be a lot of political pressure on Railtrack/ Network Rail to show that the present structure is workable and can deliver improvements, and Darling will quickly be on that case.

There are several other difficult issues in Darling’s in-tray: on the top is how to speed up the creation of Network Rail; what to do about the refranchising process (which, incidentally, was thrown into further disarray by Byers’s quite legitimate comments about because of its deteriorating service); how to handle the flak over the PPP on the Tube; and so on.

Then there are the bigger and longer-term questions, some of which have been mentioned above: How much should Network Rail take on maintenance? To what extent should vertical integration be encouraged? What are franchisees expected to deliver? How will Special Purpose Vehicles work? Should the regulatory system be simplified and what is the role of the Regulator, given there is to be a publicly-controlled infrastructure system? And dozens more, none of which can be accommodated by a mere commitment to run the trains on time.

Therefore, we must all wish Alistair Darling good luck. I will spare him the open letter that has become a regular feature in this column outlining suggestions for how he should approach his new role until he manages to assure himself of a regular copy of RAIL, which his predecessor used to read regularly and, indeed, comment upon. For the moment, there is a sharp learning curve and a lot with which to get to grips.

Quick work at Potters Bar

Reinstating a full service of trains running through Potters Bar by the Monday, ten days after the accident, was a terrific achievement given the month-long closure that resulted from the Hatfield crash. This was achieved through the co-ordinated approach of all the organisations concerned.

The British Transport Police, under its dynamic new Chief Constable Ian Johnston, was much readier to free the railway; Railtrack threw vast numbers of orange-jacketed workers on to the site as did Jarvis; and the SRA took a very active role in unblocking hold-ups. Indeed, the heads of these various organisations were in constant telephone contact through conference calls to ensure delays were reduced to a minimum.

Two questions remain which maybe informed readers could help with. First, some of my old BR pals suggest that in the old days, even very major accidents such as Harrow were cleared up so quickly that trains were running within a day or two; and secondly, if a whole station and a section of track can be repaired within a matter of days, why do routine jobs on the railway take so long and cost so much? Just a thought.

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