How to get the railways back on track

BARELY a day goes by without another nightmare rail tale. For the third Sunday running, Northern Rail cancelled dozens of scheduled services as new timetable disruptions persist. That’s the ‘new’ timetable introduced as long ago as May.

Fares increases are about to be announced, while at the same time customer satisfaction goes the other way. New research has found the rail companies are now the least trusted out of 13 consumer industries apart from car dealers thanks to problems with rail punctuality and reliability.

How on earth did an industry once so admired hit the buffers so spectacularly?

Well, for once Mrs Thatcher is not to blame. One of the few good things Margaret Thatcher did was NOT to privatise the railways. It was, she recognised, a bad idea as the railways would always need plenty of government subsidy and she realised they were a greatly loved part of Britain’s heritage.

British Rail had got rid of its old-fashioned image by replacing steam trains with sleek InterCity diesel and electrics that ran at 125 mph and were the subject of one of the best advertising campaigns of the 1980s: ‘Let the train take the strain’.

Her successor John Major was too weak and gullible to prevent his right-wingers from pushing through plans to sell off the railways, with the result that the idea became a key part of his 1992 manifesto, an election he was not expected to win. And when the Tories did in fact retain power, he allowed the ideologues free rein to create the most damaging model of privatisation.

Major, a bit of an old romantic, liked the idea of recreating the big four rail companies, based around regions like Great Western and Southern, which had existed between 1923 and 1948 when the railways were nationalised. It was a sensible idea as it would have created proper railway companies Instead, he was pushed into creating a model which involved breaking up the railways into more than 100 different organisations and flogging off as many as they could.

It was a scorched earth policy and much expertise was lost. The track and infrastructure was hived off as a separate company, Railtrack, which was subsequently flogged off, only to go bust and have to be rescued by the Government. Operations were split between 25 different companies, many of which subsequently went bust and again, had to be rescued by the Government. The engineering department was split into 13 different companies and, again, several went bust like, most recently Carillion,which had to be rescued by Network Rail. Even British Rail’s well-regarded research unit was disbanded and its coachworks were mostly closed down.

And we have suffered from the consequences of that disastrous decision, which is at the root of today’s troubles,  ever since. Take the recent timetable chaos. The timetables are drawn up by Network Rail, on the basis of demands from the train operators who have signed contracts with the government to run a particular set of services. However, no one bothered to check whether there was enough space on the tracks to accommodate all the extra trains which the operators wanted to run. Moreover, Network Rail produced the draft timetable plans late and therefore the operators did not have enough time to prepare to work the new schedules, such as training up enough drivers (who all have to ‘learn the route’ for every bit of track they run on). This was partly because Network Rail’s regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, put the company under a lot pressure to cut back on the number of timetable staff which ORR reckoned were an unnecessary luxury.

Just to make it all worse, Network Rail failed to deliver some of the track improvements, especially electrification, which were needed to accommodate the extra trains. This had a knock on effect since some of the old diesel trains used on these lines had been earmarked to other parts of the network. Moreover, in the rush to implement plans, drivers’ rosters were changed arbitrarily which meant that they were in no mood to volunteer for Sunday shifts.

Then enter the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling. Given the fact that there are so many organisations involved, he is the only one with the power to ensure that everything is co-ordinated. After all, the government has a huge amount of say over the railways as it owns Network Rail and determines the terms of the franchise, specifying the timetable and what rolling stock should be used. Grayling could, therefore, have stopped the massive timetable changes of May 20 but he did not and said later that ‘I do not run the railways’. Yet, he makes many of the decisions that affect them and wants to take credit for improvements hbut he does not want to take responsibility for things that have gone wrong.

It is not just the timetable chaos that has created the crisis in the railways. The franchising system that has operated for the last two decades is not longer working properly. The collapse of the East Coast franchise earlier this year led, remarkably, to it being taken over by the government, a move which stuck in the throat for poor old Grayling who is so in love with ensuring private companies profit from government contracts that he sold off the probation service when he was in the Ministry of Justice. That was another failing for poor old Grayling since the Government has just announced that these contracts are to be ended early because the system hasn’t worked at a cost of £150m to taxpayers.

There’s lots more in this complicated scenario in the rail industry but it is easy to see the picture. All the various players in the system who are not necessarily singing from the same hymn sheet. British Rail was by no means perfect but it had two advantages over the current system. First, all the various players such as the operator, the engineers and the commercial managers would sit round the same table and work out the service. Secondly, ministers could not intervene in the day to day running of the railway. Sure, they did set the budget and this was the system’s biggest failing as the amount of money was dependent on what the government of the day could afford, rather than what the railway needed. However, nothing like the mess of the past few weeks would have happened if the railways were controlled by a single organisation at arms length from the government.  That must be the aim for the next Labour government


Scroll to Top