Trains in sidings embarrass rail bosses

Over the coming months, the benighted commuters who travel into London’s Victoria station on SouthCentral’s services will be delighted at the sight of brand new trains appearing on the sidings along the route. These gleaming new Electrostar trains are intended to replace the 40 year old smelly cattle trucks which passengers currently have to endure twice a day.

There is only one little problem. The bulk of these new trains, some 500 out of the 700 on order, will stay in those sidings for the next couple of years, possibly until 2006, two years after the deadline for scrapping the existing trains which no longer meet health and safety standards.

The thousands who travel into Waterloo on South West Trains face a similar situation. Hundreds of new Desiro trains, built by Siemens are due to come on stream in the New Year but will also sit in sidings. Over 20kms of new trains could be sitting idle by this time next year.

The reason why the Electrostars and the Desiros cannot be introduced is simple but incredible: there is not enough electricity on the Southern third rail system to power them.

The way this debacle came about sums up the reason why our railways are in such a mess. For example, the Electrostars trains were specified by the train operator (then Connex, now GoVia) back in the early days of privatisation five years ago. They were financed by a bank and manufactured by Bombardier but no one thought to check with Railtrack (now Network Rail) that there was sufficient capacity in the system to take these trains which use up much more electricity than their predecessors.

The issue has now been picked up by the Strategic Rail Authority, which is supposed to be organising the upgrading of the supply, estimated to cost a staggering £1bn but as one railway insider put it: ‘There is no urgency about this. They don’t seem to realise this is going to be a public relations disaster for the industry and possibly an electoral one for Labour if the trains are not running by 2005 when the next election is likely to take place.’

This is a classic example of what has gone wrong with the railways since 1996 when one loss-making organisation, British Rail, was split into some 100 different businesses all expected to make a profit. It was a unique experiment on railway operation, untried anywhere in the world, and few railway industry experts are at all surprised it has proved to be disastrous. But instead of remedying the mistakes brought about by the Tories’ privatisation, New Labour has sat on its hands.

Indeed, last week, Alistair Darling effectively announced that he was leaving the railways to their own devices. The relaunch of the ten year transport plan demonstrated there was no extra money for the railways. Major new rail projects would be left on the drawing board while available cash would be channelled to roadbuilding as Darling saw this as the principal a way out of the transport crisis. It is a far cry from the early days of the Labour government when the then transport minister, John Reid, now the party chairman, said ‘train is the central element in solving all our transport problems’.

It is no exaggeration to say that the rail industry has been in a permanent state of crisis since the Hatfield train crash two years ago in which four people were killed. That was another consequence of the fragmentation of the railway as the accident was caused by a failure in communication between the contractors, Balfour Beattie and Railtrack over a damaged rail which therefore was left unrepaired for several months until it shattered under a train travelling at 117MPH. When Railtrack panicked by imposing 20MPH limits unnecessarily across the network, public confidence in the railways was fatally undermined. The performance has not recovered. The norm is that one in five trains is late, compared with one in ten before Hatfield, which effectively means people can no longer rely on letting the train take the strain.

Hatfield, along with the massive overruns on the West Coast modernisation project which saw costs soar fourfold to £10bn on refurbishing Britain’s premier rail route, led to the bankruptcy of Railtrack and its transformation into the not-for-dividend Network Rail. While that lanced the festering boil of Railtrack which was absorbing billions of taxpayers’ money while still paying out dividends to its shareholders, it has done nothing to address the day to day problems, financial and otherwise, of the network.

For example, earlier this month, the poor-performing Connex South Eastern was bailed out to the tune of £58m as it was losing money and went to the SRA with a begging bowl. This was on top of this autumn’s rescue of Virgin which got an extra £106m immediately, part of a larger package likely to be worth three or four times that, and similar rescue deals for another half dozen franchises. Even a rise in passenger numbers of 25 per cent since privatisation has not prevented these companies getting into trouble because they seriously overestimated their ability to reduce costs on what was a relatively efficient system.

Now that growth has stopped and the coming year is going to be a tough one for everyone involved in the railways. For passengers, there will be a few new trains but no prospect of major improvements even in the medium term. For the railway companies, the merest hint of a recession could send them plummeting further into the red. For the Strategic Rail Authority, the government’s vehicle which increasingly controls the railways becoming more and more like an embryonic British Rail without the labour force, there is a major financial crisis looming as half the franchises are due for renewal in within 18 months and all the operators are likely to ask for extra cash. Meanwhile, Network Rail, now backed by the government, is spending money at the staggering rate of £100m per week, with little to show for it.

Darling was clearly trying to stem the tide of bail-outs by issuing warnings about the lack of cash but without major cutbacks, politically unthinkable despite newspaper speculation last week, he will just have to keep on tapping his mate Gordon Brown for more cash.

The obvious solution to many of the railways problems is to recreate an integrate system which is the key to the success of the world’s best railways, the Swiss which are mostly publicly owned and the Japanese which are private.

But Darling has not only ruled out any extra cash for the railways, he has said that there should be no more changes to the structure. In other words, for Britain’s suffering travellers, the prospect for 2003 is that nothing much will change.

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