Rail 520: Railway School pupils make too many trips to tuck shop

In his annual summer-holiday assessment of pupils’ performance of in the Railway School, Headmaster CHRISTIAN WOLMAR finds them a little too willing to stuff themselves with goodies from the government.

It is time for the annual report from the Headmaster of the Railway School and it has been another busy year in the Railway School with, again (sigh), a series of expulsions including one involving the whole class, lots of reorganisation, many changes in the train operator class, a lot of moaning from old boys and a lack of firm discipline on the part of one of the new head boys.

Let’s start with that head boy, Chris Bolt of the Regulation class.Now Bolt is very clever. He may even be as smart as his predecessor, young Winsor (about whom more later) and we all know that is saying something. But, there are concerns about whether he is sparing the rod somewhat. Surely those bad boys in Network Rail class who refuse to give sufficient warnings about when they are going to stop the trains from running ought to have been punished more severely than the light rap on the knuckles Bolt gave them and what amounted to a year’s let off.

Bolt, too, makes the same mistake as his predecessor. He thinks that just because he is jolly clever, he can make this system work. But over the next couple of years, he is facing a very difficult task: who, exactly, is going to work out what bits of the railway are going to be cut when the government announces its high level output statement? He will certainly need all his brains and a few more.

Which brings us nicely to the Government class . There was a big surprise here in that Alistair Darling retained his position as head boy, despite widespread predictions that he would move on to better things. Now Darling is a man for whom the expression ‘more interesting watching paint dry’ might have been invented. He did, though, to his credit realise that there was something seriously wrong in the Railway School and that the classes needed reorganisation. But he woefully funked the restructuring, leaving the dreaded vertical separation intact and there are few signs that the overall problem of far too regular trips to the tuck shop from many members of the railway school has been tackled.

We have a new deputy boy, Derek Twigg who, by all accounts is a bright lad and interested in the work of the railways which is a welcome change from his predecessor, a bullying bruiser by the name of McNulty who has gone off to terrorise immigrants in the Home Office.

But we are aware that this whole class is increasingly under the control of the Bursar, Gordon Brown. Relations between the two departments have long been strained because the Bursar is appalled at the all too frequent trips to the tuck shop, even though much of this is his colleagues fault. Indeed, the Bursar’s assistant, Shriti Vadera, has been much in the news recently for her engagingly misspelt emails berating the train operators as ‘ thinly capitalised equity profiteers of the worst kind’ and her plans to try to ensure that the ‘grannies’ – Railtrack shareholders – did not receive compensation. From the emails obtained by the shareholders in the Railtrack case, It was Vadera who largely drew up the plans for the new structure of the industry and the influence of the Bursar and his acolytes is going to be felt over the next few years as they try to rein back spending in the industry.

It is the Network Rail class which is particularly remiss in this respect. Now the weirdest aspect of their behaviour is that they seemed to have spent some £850m less than they should have done this year and yet no one much has noticed. The trains have run slightly more on time than last year and there doesn’t seem to have been any great hold up in projects, and yet all this money remains in the bank. Here again, one wonders what Bolt of regulation class is up to. Perhaps he would like to ask for some of this dosh back?

Network Rail is definitely an improvement on its predecessor, Railtrack class, most of whose senior members have long departed the school, but there are still a lot of questions to be asked about its performance. And their top boys are in the habit of going down to the tuck shop to stuff themselves silly with bonuses when mostly one would have thought they could get by on their £400,000 or so salaries.

The Strategic Rail Authority class is to be no more. The story of its demise is still intriguing. Was it doomed from the day that its creator, John Prescott, moved away from transport or when Railtrack went into administration? Or was the trigger for its demise the row between Winsor of Regulation and Bowker of SRA?

It remains unclear as to why the boys at SRA were singled out for such radical punishment. They have, in reality, behaved no better or worse than many of the others in the school. Certainly Richard Bowker was a tad arrogant and his sidekick Ceri Evans loose with his language, but there is a need for a strategic body to oversee the railways and it is very doubtful that the new government Rail Group will carry out the task properly. The absence of the SRA leaves the railway in a far more vulnerable state than it has been and begs a lot of questions about its future.

Indeed, who will keep the boys in train operator class in order. Will the new Department for Transport Rail Group be up to the task? I have my doubts. The train operator lads seem to have been behaving better since Bowker imposed his tighter regime on them, but they do whinge a lot about micromanagement. But boys, you know which side your bread is buttered on so there is no point keeping up the stream of complaints. Just get down to the job of running the railway.

Indeed, it was gratifying to see Govia lose its Thameslink franchise given the terrible conditions of much of its rolling stock but one still wonders why South Eastern trains could not just be allowed to continue as a member of government class, rather than being forced into the private sector again. Moreover, there are still several franchises under management contract which seems to be the worst of both worlds since the risk is not privatised and there is no incentive for initiatives, and yet it is a more expensive way of running the service than direct operation.

A quick word about London Underground class. The responses by staff to the awful attacks on the London Underground were universally praised and it is very noticeable how quickly the system was back in action, despite the extensive damage. Much praise to the teams involved and, in particular, to the head boy, Tim O’Toole, who performed excellently in front of the media and ensured the system got back to normal quickly in sharp contrast to the 11 week closure two years ago after the Central Line derailment.

Now a lot of the activity of the old boys has come to our attention. It has come to the attention of the headmaster that one of them, Stephen Byers, told porkies to his Parliamentary colleagues about the fact that he wanted to get rid of Railtrack back in July 2001. Such behaviour cannot be condoned and we are very shocked that a pupil should have behaved like this when he was at the school. He will be banned from attending any sports day or other school event for five years.

There have been several other old boys who seem unable to keep away from the school. That particularly applies to young Winsor. He has, in fairness, only made one appearance in print, an article in theFinancial Times berating the behaviour of the government during the Railtrack crisis, but the caretaker has the feeling that he has been loitering around the premises on several occasions and is eager to make his views known about the current administration of the school. Well, Winsor, tempting as it is, it probably is better to let go and see how the new lot messes up the railway.

Richard Bowker, who was amply compensated when his whole class was booted out has got in the act by writing an extremely illuminating series of articles for Rail . He seems to have a pretty low opinion of the operators and much of what he has written seems to accord with the view of this column except he has still not managed to answer my favourite question: ‘what is a franchise for?

Even that Corbett fellow who used to be in the now defunct Railtrack class even popped up his head briefly at the time of the Hatfield case when charges against him and other senior staff were dropped. We are very pleased that this decision was made, and wish him well in his new job which apparently includes chairmanship of the company that owns Durex, though lets hope that his products do not break as easily as rails did during his time at Railtrack.

Overall, it has been a better year on the railway, with better behaviour from most classes, though the overriding issue is the overuse of the tuck shop. There is plenty of uncertainty in many of the classes and there must be continued improvement this year or there will be great pressure to axe yet more classes.

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