Rail Horizons On the Wrong Line Review

Published by Aurum Press (2005), ‘On the Wrong Line’ by long term journalist and rail commentator Christian Wolmar gives a valuable description of how not to privatise railways. It includes not only the costly and counterproductive break up and privatisation of British Rail by the Major Government, but some useful background of railways in Britain from the 19th century up until the 1992 White Paper. This promoted franchising with ‘network benefits’, and a separate company within British Rail (BR) to own the track etc.

The author is clearly knowledgeable on his subject. The book looks behind the scenes at the ideological and Treasury manoeuvring, with less than effective politicians on both sides that saw BR cut up and sold off at fire sale prices and the aftermath. This includes the formation and sale of Railtrack along with details of the 1997 Southall and 1999 Ladbroke Grove fatal collisions, and, the 2000 Hatfield and 2002 Potters Bar derailments. ‘On the Wrong Line’ is an up to date sequel to the authors ‘Broken Rails – How privatisation wrecked Britain’s railways’. The book also refers to a play “The Permanent Way” that was well received in an all too brief season in Sydney in early 2005.

The privatisation of BR stands in stark contrast to the break up and privatisation of the Japan National Railways on 1 April 1987 leading to six vertically integrated rail passenger companies. Wolmar’s book briefly refers (p376) to this and quotes the Central JR president Mr Kasai, at the opening in October 2003 of the new Shinagawa Station in Tokyo noting that it could not have possibly have happened if “….management responsibility had been split between a track company and an operator,” also “….railways require a form of vertical integration, that is integrated management and unified operations, to improve efficiency and have good results”.

Wolmar makes a concluding point (p344) that: “Privatisation has left another gap – there is no vision for the railways”. Although to a lesser extent this may apply to parts of Australia and New Zealand, it does not apply to Japan. Neither does it apply to rail freight in Canada and the United States. It is not entirely clear from the book what were the additional factors applying in Britain to rail privatisation.

Overseas readers in particular would be assisted by a chronology of the more important events. In addition, a table showing payments made by the Government each year to the railways, starting with BR in say 1985 through to the most recent year available would assist. It would also support statements by the author such as “a decade after privatisation, the railways receive more tax payers money – over £6 billion per year – than ever before” (elsewhere the book notes a factor of five). Also the number of passengers moved each year in Britain by rail would be of interest, as would more discussion about rail freight in Britain. Given the likely increasingly important role of rail in the 21st century, readers could have been given some grounds for optimism with some possible scenarios of a better future for rail in the United Kingdom. Who knows, this could even include, through a sequence of mergers, the formation of vertically integrated companies covering different regions. After all, there is a long standing precedent for this in Britain. Overall and in conclusion, there is much of interest in the book and it reads well. It should be required reading for all concerned with rail operations and the national interest. As such, the book is highly recommended.

Philip Laird, University of Wollongong

Note added. Books on the successful break up and privatisation of the Japan National Railways include “Success story” by S. Sumita, “Making the impossible possible” by M. Matsuda (Chairman of East Japan Railway Company who spoke at AusRail 2001 in Brisbane as did a speaker from Rail Track in the UK) and “Japanese National Railways, its break-up and privatisation” by Y. Kasai. For a 2005 account of local rail privatisation, see “Results of Railway privatisation in Australia and New Zealand” published by the World Bank and available at http://www.worldbank.org

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