Why our railways keep on failing passengers

THIS was supposed to be the weekend that Network Rail made up for its disastrous performance of Christmas. Instead, once again, Liverpool Street is effectively closed thanks to engineering overruns, with thousands of commuters forced to make other arrangements. And it is not about to get any better: travellers can expect further disruption, especially on the West Coast Main Line to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool over the next few months, with upgrading work is behind schedule. Passengers on those lines will also face higher fares and more overcrowding because of a breakdown in negotiations between Virgin and the Government over plans to add extra coaches to trains.

Meanwhile in the longer term, rail passengers everywhere face years of above-inflation fare rises, as the Government lets the train companies put up fares on many tickets, making our trains some of the most expensive in the world.

How is it that Network Rail and ministers can get away with this sort of behaviour – failing passengers while effectively charging them more for the privilege of crowded, disrupted journeys?

The problems stem from the fact that the railways have been broken up into separate companies for operations and infrastructure, both now controlled by Whitehall. Any shred of independence was destroyed in 2005 when the Government scrapped the Strategic Rail Authority, a body Labour itself had created only five years previously. Now, the 20 train operators have to fulfil very detailed requirements in the contracts they sign with the Department for Transport, right down to the number of carriages they are allowed to operate on each route.

Network Rail, the infrastructure operator, is effectively government run anyway, since it receives most of its money in grants and has no shareholders. This fragmented industry has lost the ability to operate economically and efficiently. The subsidy to the railways is now running at £5 billion annually, three times the amount British Rail ever received – one reason why ministers are happy to let operators put up many fares by seven or eight per cent a year. The other reason they are happy with the fare rises is, perversely, that it reduces demand on overcrowded trains – this from a Government theoretically committed to greening our tyransport system. And yet every time there is a problem, it takes far longer to correct than it did under British Rail, because no one has the right skills to run a railroad. When the overhead wiring came down on the East Coast Main Line earlier this month, for example, National Express, the newly appointed operator, simply told passengers not to travel. That scenario seems to be repeated almost daily whenever anything goes wrong on the railways.

I have just spent a week in Holland where I travelled on a dozen trains. Not one was delayed and at times I had to make a connection within four minutes, not something one would dare attempt in Britain. While the railways have been subjected to a partial break-up, as in Britain, as a result of EU rules, there is still one main state-owned train operator, NS, and as a result it has not lost the ability to run a proper rail service.

There is only one real solution for the mess we are in. Britain needs a single large rail company that has the power to stand up to the Government and the ability to operate a proper service. The private-company charlatans who currently run the trains on short-term contracts will squeal that it is simply not possible, given the EU rules that require a separation between track and operations. Not so.

If the Government melded the operators into one big company and insisted it worked closely with Network Rail, then many of the advantages of having a single major rail organisation would be regained. This is the case in most European countries, such as France, Germany and Spain, where, thanks to a much closer relationship between state and the railways, governments are prepared to fund huge high-speed rail networks and major investments in improving urban services.

In Britain there is no strong railway organisation to push for these developments. Worse, the industry is being run from Whitehall by civil servants who are specifying timetables, designing the requirements for new trains and interfering in the day-to-day management of the railways in an unprecedented way. This means that neither Network Rail nor the train operators have the requisite skills to run a railway – and even if they make decisions, they risk being countermanded by the bureaucrats.

We have a dysfunctional railway system and it will remains so until a government has the courage to reorganise it and allow the railway managers get on with their job. They be given the freedom to make decisions on their own – and be permanent custodians of the network.

So why is no politician calling for such a change? For a time, when Chris Grayling was shadow transport secretary, it seemed the Conservatives might be brave enough to do just that: Grayling talked about re-integrating the railways to recreate a coherent structure. But unfortunately, since his departure last summer, there has been silence on these issues from the Tory benches. That may be because the party was stuck in a conundrum: reintegrating the railways would require either renationalising the train operators — unacceptable for a Tory government — or privatising Network Rail, which would risk a repeat of the Railtrack debacle.

Privately, Labour is unhappy with the present situation. Network Rail was already in the last-chance saloon after the cock-ups at Christmas, and so are some of the train operators, such as First Great Western, recently was forced to cough up £29 million-worth of improvements or face losing its franchise. One or two more major disasters and even Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly might be forced into ordering an inquiry into the way our railways are run. Otherwise, those passengers today cursing the railways as can expect more of the same: higher fares, more disruption and ever greater Whitehall meddling.

Christian Wolmar is the author of Fire & Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain (Atlantic Books).

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