Rail 869: The railway’s annus horribilis

This has been the railway’s annus horribilis. Nothing may have burnt down but almost everything else that could have gone wrong has done so. The list is almost too painful to go through: the timetable meltdown; the new Hitachi trains that seem to have endless problems and seats that make you wish you had brought your own cushion; the laughable failure of Crossrail’s promise to be on time and on budget; a franchise system that has completely lost its way; and an investment programme, particularly on electrification, is proving excessively expensive and has had to be reined back; and overall a system which, yet again, is being subjected to a review by an industry outsider.

All this, just to add an element of farce, under the control of a minister whose name has an unfortunate but somewhat appropriate rhyme. It is perhaps fortunate that there is a rather huge political fiasco dominating the headlines as otherwise the railways would be even higher up the political and media agenda. I have had several media interviews cancelled in recent weeks as the Brexit crisis has deepened.

Nevertheless, the railways are unequivocally in a mess and much of the year has been spent in handwringing and playing the blame game. It is an unedifying spectacle, not least because the responsibility is widely shared and no organisation can be entirely exonerated. So this review of 2018 will be a kind of reprise of the railway classroom end of term reports I used to do in the dog days of the summer silly season until they got too repetitive. It seems timely to do this because so much has gone wrong and many of the solutions should have been learnt ages ago.

Let’s start with the big beast in the room, Network Rail. Large organisations are bound to have issues but Network Rail seems to have more than it should, even given the difficulties of its size. Somehow, under Mark Carne, the focus was wrong. He wanted to reinvent the railway, criticising it for being stuck in the past and advocated a completely different approach, based on the digital railway. His constant refrain was about the fact that many of its practices were based in the past. This obsession with transformation took the focus away from the day job, in particular the management of projects.

As with much of the industry, the fundamental problem is a structural one which he only began to recognise in his farewell interviews. All the evidence points that way. Technology should have made the maintenance and enhancement of the railway cheaper and yet somehow uniquely of any industry, everything seems more expensive as new technology is adopted. Insiders put it down to the complexity of working within the organisation, the box ticking required in an organisation that sub-contracts out so many tasks and the requirements of the regulator which is man marking so much of its work.

The good news is the arrival of Andrew Haines, an experienced railway manager who has worked for train operators and therefore understands their concerns, as Network Rail chief executive. He has made all the right noises so far and has won plaudits from many of those he has met, and if anyone can make a good stab at tackling the problems, it is someone with his background and approach.

God knows, however, I do not envy him. He will have to juggle the at times irreconcilable contrast between having a strong central organisation and devolving key functions to the routes (of which, incidentally, there are likely to be half the current number. Moreover, there is a febrile atmosphere within the industry with many disgruntled people inside it and the dogs of war wait outside ready for the next railway ‘disaster’ which is usually Kelvin Mackenzie’s train from Woking being five minutes late. (Mackenzie, the controversial editor of The Sun whose inaccurate coverage of the Hillsborough disaster still means the paper is still effectively banned in Merseyside is now a Talk Sport host and regularly rants about the railways on his show.)

The train operators have not distinguished themselves either this year. A couple, notably SouthEastern, have done well but overall the franchise system has been found wanting. The abandonment of the East Coast franchise by Stagecoach (alias Virgin) was a big blow to the system, and the company’s whingeing about being forced to overbid because of the nasty Department for Transport did not win this commentator over. The system was predicated on an ever growing rail passenger numbers and with what appears to be the beginnings of the collapse of the season ticket market, there seems little alternative for the Williams review but to come up with major reform.  The Rail Delivery Group should have the courage to recognise that change is on the way and attempt to adapt, rather than desperately trying to hold on to the status quo.

The role of the Office of Road and Rail has also been under the spotlight this year. My view is that it did not sufficiently consider the implications of the timetable changes. The ORR claims that its fundamental task is to ‘protect the interests of rail and road users. We are improving the safety, value and performance of railways and roads, today and in the future’. Well it manifestly failed to do so and it was laughable that the ORR itself was tasked with reviewing the causes of the timetable breakdown. Inevitably, we now have a further review, which, on past record, any recommendations it makes which the minister does not like will be ignored.

Finally, there is unequivocal – well almost – good news about safety. In February, the industry will be able to celebrate a dozen years without an accident causing a fatality. This is remarkable given the past history of the railways when, even in the 1980s, it was expected there would be two or three major accidents each year causing a couple of dozen fatalities. Travelling on the railway was not as safe as it ought to have been. Now a combination of lessons learnt from past disasters and a healthy dollop of luck has resulted in an unprecedented record. There are, though, constant reminders that there is always the potential for disaster. Just the mere mention the steam locomotive Tangmere which in 2015 nearly smashed into a fully laden 125 because of sloppy procedures that resulted in a signal passed at danger sends shivers down my spine. And the report published in November by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch on last year’s Waterloo derailment specifically referred to lessons of the Clapham disaster, whose 30th anniversary has just been noted, being forgotten. Eternal vigilance is as ever needed on the railway. Let’s hope, though, that when I write next year’s round up, the remarkable recent safety record will still be intact.



Mystic Wolmar sails on


The predictions for 2018 were uncharacteristically modest and rather tepid, but yet again the calamitous Cassandra managed to get several things wrong. Here is what his rather opaque crystal ball foresaw:


  1. The dip in passenger numbers will continue as season ticket sales fall and the benefits of flexible working become more widely accepted
  2. The Southern rail dispute, and the associated second person rows around the country, will be resolved with RMT giving ground though not admitting it
  3. The government will be forced to step in on at least one other franchise contract
  4. There will be a big fuss about the new IEP Hitachi trains malfunctioning

And on the political front,

  1. Brexit will become more unpopular and pressure for a second referendum will become impossible to resist
  2. There will not be a general election this year but Theresa May will not be in Downing Street
  3. As for QPR, neither relegation nor promotion will be in the offing.


Well, the first one is sort of right, although there were recent signs of a bit of an upturn – so let’s say ¾ of a mark there. The Southern Rail dispute has not been resolved, and indeed has spread, but with the collapse of East Coast, number 3 was spot on as was number 4 – indeed, there have been numerous malfunctions. The Brexit prediction is right but we do not yet know about the second referendum, so another ¾ there and obviously, at least as I write, Theresa May is still there, so just ½ for that one. And good old QPR are still in mid table.

So by playing safe, Mystic has scored four out of seven, so there is life in the old devil yet. Watch out in the next issue for the glorious predictions for 2019 – and do please make any suggestions to me – @christianwolmar on Twitter or Christian.wolmar@gmail.com

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