Unlike some of the contributors to this momentous issue, I was not there at the beginning but I have written this column for almost three quarters of the existence of this magazine. Inevitably, therefore, this is a time for a retrospective look at these efforts to make sense of the complicated world of railway politics.
My first column, at the end of September 1995, was in issue 262, oddly entitled ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’ and I was apparently a modest brown haired fellow at the time who wrote ‘I am a humble layman, an observer of the railways and Government policy towards them’. Now I am a grey haired git with a hint of arrogance born of surviving for this long in Rail. My column, which editor Nigel Harris had invited me to write, initially titled me as ‘Wolmar of The Independent’ as I was transport correspondent of the paper at the time, but within a couple of years I had left to go freelance, after a brief period as a political correspondent.
This was, remember, as now a period of a dying Tory government. The columns in those first two years, until the May 1997, inevitably centred on privatisation with the nascent Railtrack already coming in for flak with wonderful headlines such as ‘I can’t like Railtrack – even if I try’ (issue 279, May 1996) and the discovery that ‘Even Railtrack’s managers are opposed to its sale’ (issue 278, May 1996). There was also considerable disquiet about the failure of Labour to come up with coherent plans (plus ça change).
I have always argued that despite my opposition to rail privatisation, I should be grateful that John Major won the 1997 election on a platform to sell of the railways as otherwise my column would have disappeared given the paucity of things to write about. How many times can one slag off, or indeed praise, British Rail?
But actually, even before the railway was sold off and broken up, there was no shortage of subjects such as the rail enquiry service and the 40 million calls annually that went unanswered (issue 288 October 1996). Even as the Labour government took over and their rather incoherent transport policies required analysis (305, May 1997) there were, too, the accidents which had to be covered ranging from the report into the Channel Tunnel fire (306, June 1997) to, of course, Southall (315, October 1997) and, later, Ladbroke Grove (368, 369 October 1999). The massive improvement in safety is one of the most remarkable changes in the industry since I started writing this column which I usually refrain from mentioning (touch wood) as nowadays fortunately I rarely have to cover accidents and their aftermath.
A subject which attracted numerous columns (e.g 323 February 1998) was the Channel Tunnel Rail Link as it was called then (now High Speed One) and all the changes that were being made to its route and design. It is easy to forget, given the lack of an impressive transport secretary since Patrick McLoughlin, that there were several big hitters in the job. My columns in the early days of the Labour government often featured John Prescott (e.g. 327 March 1998 and many more) who was in charge of transport as part of a mega department created to match his ego. For all his faults and grandstanding, however, Prescott genuinely cared and his ambitious plans for tram schemes and railway extensions were stymied by lack of support from Downing Street.
The new century brought in the Strategic Rail Authority which I hoped would be successful but expressed great doubts and felt that the staff ‘had an impossible task’ (388 July 2000). It also brought the Hatfield train accident which cause relatively few deaths but would have the greatest impact on the railways, causing an unprecedented meltdown from which it took years to recover (395 and subsequent columns, November 2000) and which eventually, together with the West Coast Main Line refurbishment fiasco caused the demise of Railtrack (410, June 2001).
This was a particularly fretful period for the railways – with resonance for today – as the Potters Bar accident added to the sense that there was a fundamental problem with the industry. (436, May 2002). That column fiercely attacked Jarvis, the contractors who were responsible for the points whose failure caused the disaster, for trying to suggest that sabotage was involved. Jarvis incidentally has gone the way of many of the companies I mention in these columns as it later collapsed partly as a result of the disaster.
Soon after that disaster and the collapse of Railtrack, Stephen Byers the transport secretary was forced out and replaced by Alistair Darling who has just died. He was considered a safe pair of hands (although I was sceptical, 437 June 2002) but as was pointed out by Howard Johnston in the previous issue of Rail actually binned several viable tram schemes put forward originally by Prescott, about which I was furious (532, February 2006). I was soon telling Darling to stop playing ‘pretend capitalism’ (439, July 2002) with the railways, one of the themes of my column over the years as I argue that the privatisation of the industry will always only ever be partial since the trains must run whatever happens to the companies operating them. I remembered, too, that at a press conference (they don’t have them anymore) I asked him about encouraging rail as opposed to flying between London and Scotland, and he said it was not the business of government to interfere. Hmmm.
I became increasingly critical of the failure of the Strategic Rail Authority, only recently created by the incoming Labour government, to get to grips with the railways and in particular of its boss, Richard Bowker who seemed particularly inept at playing the political game (454 February 2003 and 464 June 2003). And ultimately he was outsmarted by Tom Winsor at the then Office of Rail Regulation and the SRA was – wrongly in my view today – abolished by Darling (493 August 2004). The demise of the SRA did lead to a quieter period, with Darling staying in office after the 2005 election, far longer than most of his predecessors and putting the kaybosh on any hopes of a high speed rail (536 March 2006).
There were occasional successes, though. I went down to Cornwall to write about the campaign to save the sleeper train, led by Andy Roden, a fellow rail journalist (Rail 528, December 2005) which eventually won. A more harrowing campaign was to highlight the risks of a particularly badly designed crossing at Elsenham station which led to the death of two girls teenagers by a trin (Rail 529 December 2005), one of whom happened to be the daughter of a former colleague of mine. It was a terrible tale of missed warnings, poor risk assessment, bad design and lack of attention to detail. That story still haunts me to this day.
Of course, I was not always right (surely not? Ed). I questioned the value of Crossrail, a scheme which had been revived by Prescott after being scrapped by the Tories, suggesting wrongly that it may be ‘doomed to hit the buffers’ (539, May 2006). A dozen years later I published my book on it extolling the line’s wonders. We are all allowed to change our minds. Throughout this time Mystic Wolmar has been trying his luck and mostly getting it wrong as well especially in 2006 when he got virtually everything wrong, including the departure of Tony Blair.
Another of my favourite themes is debunking promises of new technology. Over the years I have enjoyed watching the lack of progress on driverless cars, drone deliveries, hyperloop and maglev. Debunking a suggestion by George Osborne, the chancellor for austerity, for a maglev scheme was like shooting fish in a barrel (548, September 2006). And to finish this first part on a note of Wolmar getting it wrong again, I noted (556 January 2007) that the report into Britain’s transport needs by former BA boss Sir Rod Eddington seemed to have killed off the idea of HS2 for a generation.
The Public Private Partnership on the London Underground (569 July 2007) was another perennial subject especially as I wrote a book about it appropriately called Down the Tube. I had fun, too, exposing the ridiculous waste of space at St Pancras with the huge upper floor unused security area (586 March 2008) and in posing the Wolmar question ‘What is franchising for?’ in numerous issues (e.g. 601 September 2008).
Knocking Eurostar was a perennial topic too as I have always thought the operator lacked imagination and failed to exploit its potential (635 January 2010). Every year I used to assess the performance of the railway class in the summer doldrums (649 August 2010) until it just got too disastrous.
In truth though, the early 2010s were a quieter time for the railway as the system had bedded down and the accidents had all but disappeared.
HS2, Eurostar and the franchising system were the hardy perennials, featuring numerous times especially in these quiet periods. The Tories under David Cameron took over and when I interviewed the new transport secretary, Philip Hammond (now deemed to not be right wing enough for the party) he said that trains were ‘a rich man’s toy’ (he had a seat in leafy Surrey) and he asked me why lightly loaded trains could not stop at level crossings so that cars could have priority (680, October 2011). To liven matters up, there was the West Coast franchising fiasco when Virgin’s bid was unfairly barred (707 October 2012). I’ve always been a sceptic about open access and that was another regular theme (751 June 2014).
There were occasional diversions such as covering America, the Transsiberian and India about which I have written books (706 September, 711 December 2012 and 795 March 2016 respectively but by and large the bread and butter has been the state of the British railways. And this came to the fore during the timetable chaos of May 2018 (854 June 2018) which set in train what became the Williams Shapps review that has still not been implemented.
Indeed, the last couple of years have been dominated by Covid, cuts and chaos featuring in almost every issue. I suspect that much of the next couple of years will have similar themes though I hope that the expected victory of the Labour party may bring some new order to the railways. But I am not holding my breath. Keep on reading!
To catch up on these columns, all those from issue 385 (July 2000) are on my website www.christianwolmar.co.uk along with nearly all my journalism written this century, a total of just under 1,700 articles including all my podcasts for Calling All Stations. Happy reading and listening, and here is to issue 2,000!