Rail 469: Railway industry buckles as media turn up the heat

The railway has admirably fulfilled its traditional summer role as silly season Aunt Sally for the media but, points out Christian Wolmar, the problems it faced were not just figments of news starved journalists’ imaginations.

The railways are often a good source of silly season stories during the lean summer news-free months but this year has exceeded past experience, thanks largely to the industry’s seemingly endless capacity to score own goals. Had it not been for the Hutton enquiry, the railways would have been virtually the only story throughout August. As it was, there was massive coverage and the two stories which attracted most attention – the speed restrictions caused by the hot weather and the apparently uncoordinated series of closures over the August bank holiday weakened – both appeared to result from industry cock-ups.

I use the word ‘appeared’ deliberately. Is it fair to blame the industry for the readiness of the media to go into its apparently default mode of bashing the railways? Indeed, on the face of it, there were good sound explanations for the two events. Network Rail argued that the speed restrictions were a sensible and appropriate response to the exceptional heat and that using bank holidays for possessions saved money, allowing for long periods of continuous work, and was better than disrupting a whole series of weekends.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper. In neither case is the official explanation entirely satisfactory. Sure, the weather was exceptional but the imposition – unknown in peacetime – of a speed limit on the whole of the West Coast smacks of a mix of poor management and panic. As explained in the news section of the last issue of Rail, rails are stressed to cope with a normal, expected range of temperatures. It is only when they have been insufficiently stressed for the hot temperature, or when there are other problems with the track, such as insufficient ballast or wet spots that there is a risk of buckling track.

However, according to an experienced permanent way engineer of my acquaintance, ‘BR had a reasonably accurate record of each section of Continuous Welded Rail of the tracks for each P Way area. This record was used to identify sections of Continuously Welded Rail that had not been ‘destressed’ for the summer temperatures before the rail temperature was expected to reach critical temperature (around 32C). Sections that had not been restressed were said to be Red Sections and these were either hurriedly destressed usually in a flurry of extra night time possessions or a temporary speed limit was introduced over the section. In extremely high temperatures sections of track that were adjudged to be suspect of suffering a buckle (usually curves in cuttings that trap heat) were patrolled frequently to keep an eye on them.’

Of course, these days that sort of rapid action is impossible. The crews to carry out such work are simply not available as Network Rail has no access to its own labour force in the way that BR did. But there is a question mark, too, over NR’s record keeping. Apparently many records on the Southern were lost in a fire, but it is surprising that no overall record of the situation on the West Coast was is being kept, given the amount of work being carried out on the line.

Not surprisingly, my P-way friend concludes: ‘What seems to have been introduced in response to the heat wave is a ham-fisted covering of arses. No one appears able to accept responsibility for guaranteeing “the safety of the line” to use an old fashioned expression.’ It is difficult to dissent from that view. The episode is another example of the fact that the ability to run a railway has been lost in the fog of fragmentation.

In mitigation, of course, we are in the post Hatfield world of risk aversion and manslaughter charges and very conservative decisions are being taken. However, that is not a sufficient explanation. Ultimately, the only 100 per cent safe railway is one without any train services and therefore safety assessments have to be made the whole time which is the job of well-paid executives in Network Rail to make.

On the simultaneous closures of sections of three main lines over the August bank holiday, there does seem to have been a lack of coordination. A reader, Ivor Wasson, booked a seat from London to Liverpool that weekend and Virgin advised him to go via Paddington. But when he checked on the National Rail website, it gave conflicting advice. While it routed him via Paddington, its major engineering section warned that there were no trains between there and Reading. He therefore realised that he would have to go by Waterloo from where, in fact, First Great Western services were operating.

(This incidentally prompted a notice to be stuck on trains which demonstrates the extent to which the safety culture has got out of hand. The posters warned people, in language aimed at five year olds, that ‘services will be operated over an electrified line between Reading and Waterloo. The electricity in this area is carried on a “3rd rail”. ‘. Therefore, in the ‘unlikely event’ that they should have to walk alongside the tracks they should ‘be especially careful not to touch or step on any rail’. This is really backside covering taken to extremes – after all, the trains running on the Southern electrified system do not have such notices but who would take bets against them appearing in the next year or so?)

While scheduling possessions for bank holidays does make economic sense, it appears that either there is no overall co-ordination or that these parallel closures have been allowed in order to save money. Moreover, there is no longer the ability of those running the railway to use diversionary routes in a co-ordinated way because of the need to compensate train operators, such as Chiltern, who might be adversely affected by suddenly having lots of extra services on their lines.

Admittedly, given all the dire warnings of ‘impending rail chaos’ the substitute bus services seemed to have worked well and few of the passengers interviewed on TV were that bothered. So yet again, the whole episode was partly another excuse for the media to treat the railways as their traditional Aunt Sally.

Apart from buckling rails and engineering possessions, there was another controversy which attracted the attention of the media during August, the outspoken comments of the new transport minister, Kim Howells, about rail safety. Howells bravely went on the Radio 4’s Today, knowing it is the news agenda setting programme, defending the railways’ safety record. Taking the bull by the horns, he said there would always be train accidents and that safety work should not paralyse the network. While recognising that it was a sensitive subject especially given the strength of the survivors’ group, he put the nail on the head by saying: ‘We have got an incredible kind of risk-averse culture. We have got a situation where this is probably the most safe form of transport there is, and yet we look at every single accident as if it is the end of civilisation.’

Predictably, the ubiquitous rent a quote lawyer, Louise Christian, who represents some of the survivors of the various accidents, was quick to jump on the right wing tabloid bandwagon against Howells, presumably while holding her nose since she was a Socialist Alliance candidate at the last election. She said: ‘His comments were extremely offensive and very, very insensitive….what he said also showed a complete lack of understanding for transport safety as a whole. The distinction he has made between rail and road safety is a false dichotomy because if railways are not perceived to be safe, more people will get into their cars.’ That does not make any sense. Railways are widely perceived to be safe among the general public and, indeed, it is only the efforts of the likes of Christian with her continuous emphasis on the dangers of travelling by rail which undermines that confidence.

Let’s hope that Howells is not put off by the predictable criticism he received in the tabloids. If he is prepared to tackle the all-too powerful safety lobby within the industry, he will be an amazing force for the good in the difficult times to come in the next couple of years when the money starts to dry up and there will be hard choices to be made between, say, some very marginal and not properly assessed safety measures and keeping a line open or uneconomic services running.

Creeping renationalisation or common sense?

The decision by Network Rail to take back in-house its signalling design capacity has led to further accusations of creeping renationalisation. But a moment’s thought will show that this is a sensible change that is overdue.

One of the problems with Railtrack is that it was created as an empty shell which outsourced everything all its functions and did not even have sufficient management capacity to oversee all these contracts. In effect, that meant Railtrack itself had no real function, except as a jumble of contracts. If NR is to make the savings demanded by the regulator, then it has to have mechanisms by which it can cut costs and without direct control over major functions like signal design, it will not have them.

Clearly, NR’s management have realised that if the organisation continues to outsource its main functions, then it serves no purpose. Therefore, expect further such announcements over the coming year. It is just a shame that, through fear of being accused of renationalisation, NR tends not to announce these decisions but instead lets them slip out.

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