Finger points to both the Tories and Labour

The twin crises of the railways were cruelly exposed yesterday. Not only is the number of delays at a record level, but the railways are costing taxmpayers more than ever before.

First, the LibDems put out a press release pointing out that train delays were twice as bad under Labour compared with the performance under the Tories. Then Tom Winsor, the rail regulator, announced a £22bn package to fund the railways over the next five years which includes giving Network Rail the right to borrow a further £3bn on top of the company’s existing debt of £14bn, an unprecedented level of debt which the railways are unlikely ever to be able to pay back.

The LibDems may have been a bit politically opportunist but the fundamental point they make is right. Passengers are experiencing twice the number of delays as under British Rail with 20 per cent of trains being significantly late, a situation which has now lasted for over three years since the Hatfield train crash in October 2000.

But probably more worrying is the way that costs have soared. Under British Rail, the railways used to cost taxpayers around a £1bn or so every year. That is because the organisation was geared to delivering a level of service that the Treasury reckoned it could afford. Now there is no such control by the Treasury and, instead, Mr Winsor has generously allowed the railways a 50 per cent increase in funding which is having to come out of our pockets.

Indeed, the railways are absorbing nearly four times that amount of taxpayers money, £3.8bn per year, a staggering £10m per day. The privatisation introduced by the Tories a decade ago was supposed to cut the subsidy to almost nothing. Now, instead, taxpayers are paying for a service that is poorer than the one provided by much maligned British Rail. Winsor and transport ministers argue that this is to make up a backlog of underfunding by British Rail.

That is a rewriting of history. The truth is that the crazy system under which the railways are now operated through a web of complicated contracts linking a mass of different companies is the root cause of the chaos.

The railway was broken up into 100 parts by the Tories and each one was expected to make a profit. This was an impossible pipedream and, instead, many of these companies have been making comfortable risk-free profits at the taxpayers’ expense.

The LibDems are right, too, to point the finger at Labour. Tony Blair made the mistake of thinking that he could get away with leaving the railways in the fragmented state left by the Tories’ botched privatisation. So he focussed on other, more headline-grabbing, issues, such as health, education and foreign policy.

But this was a mistake. While many people do not even use the railways, they are seen as a symbol of a government’s ability to run the country. And clearly their parlous state shows that the government has failed.

In fact, not all is bad news on the railways. Record numbers of passengers are letting the train take the strain. Last year, a billion journeys were taken by rail, more than at any time since the early 1960s when the network was much bigger.

Moreover, safety is improving despite the recent tragic death of four rail workers at Tebay last month. The number of minor incidents, such as derailments and broken rails, has gone down, and no passengers have been killed in a train crash since seven people were killed at Potters Bar in May 2002. Crucially, thanks to the implementation of a new safety device at a cost of £500m, the Train Protection and Warning System, the number of trains passing red lights has been reducing sharply.

Passengers, too, will be pleased to know that recently, performance has begun to edge up with the not for profit Network Rail, the company that replaced the collapsed Railtrack in October 2002, beginning to reduce the number of delayed trains. For example, there were a quarter fewer delays due to falling leaves last autumn compared with 2002 thanks to better planning by Network Rail, more liaison with the Met Office and a concerted attempt to prune trees near the line. Moreover, in the first area where maintenance was taken back in-house, Reading, delays in the past five months have been cut by 40 per cent compared with the same time last year, a sign that this new policy may improve matters for passengers.

But the fundamentals of the railway structure are still wrong, and until they are sorted out, the railways will remain in a mess. To give Transport Secretary Alistair Darling credit, he has, albeit belatedly, recognised this. In January he announced a review of the structure of the industry in an effort to reduce costs and cut back on bureaucracy. Although the results will not be announced till July, it is thought that he has the bloated 500-strong Strategic Rail Authority in his sites. Darling has said he wants a single point of decision making for the railway, which implies there could be the radical restructuring which Labour should have undertaken when it won power in 1997. In the meantime, both taxpayers and passengers are paying the price of a botched Tory privatisation compounded by nearly seven years of Labour inaction.

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