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The Wrong Track
Stuart Macdonald

Sir Alastair Morton, Gerald Corbett, Tom Winsor and now John Robinson. It seems that the ultimate solution to making the United Kingdom's trains operate properly is not to pursue a programme of clearly considered investment, but to ensure that there are as many people involved as is humanly possible. This smokescreen of men in suits is intended to mystify a public which is outraged at the fact that train services in the early 1930s ran more punctually and faster than they do today.

Today marks seven months since the accident at Hatfield, during which time the rail network has been in an almost constant state of disarray. Railtrack, the infrastructure operator, has pledged that, as far as they are concerned, the summer timetables, which are introduced today, will run to schedule. The operating companies, such as Stagecoach and Connex, have been a tad more realistic and offered that a measly four out of every five trains will run on time.

As a result of the media frenzy which constantly surrounds the issue, it is quite apparent that the health of Britain's railways has become almost as politicised as that of the National Health Service. John Prescott, the Minister for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), continually slugs it out with Railtrack and the operating companies, over the meeting of draconian performance targets. The industry has become grossly over-regulated and has actually seen an increase in government intervention since privatisation in 1993.

Many members of the public have followed the government's lead in pointing the finger of blame at Railtrack for the massive disruption since the Hatfield crash. This is a classic example of the policy of privatised failure and nationalised credit, which the Conservative government sought to exploit through the Railways Act of 1993. This means that, although Railtrack is a publicly listed company with investors and an elected board of directors, the government has increasingly meddled in its affairs so as to meet its own political ends. Any problems which have been encountered (and there have been a few), whether as a result of its actions or not, Railtrack has exclusively taken the blame. Yet, whenever some more positive news emerges (admittedly this happens all too infrequently) the government is on hand to take a large share of the publicity spoils.

In order for the increasingly mobile British public to receive anything even approaching a reliable train service, the government needs to follow a definite path of either the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, or full and effective privatisation - not some botched hybrid, half-way house. To even attempt to work under some of the quite ridiculous levels of regulation to which the rail industry is subjected by the authorities, is a mockery of common sense. In its southern region alone, Railtrack employs some 50 people to attribute blame for delayed and disrupted services. The intricate web which has been jointly woven by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) and the various watchdog bodies, is so confusing that its administration takes bureaucracy to new depths of disruption.

In the wake of the accident at Hatfield, Railtrack grossly over-reacted, introducing nearly 500 crippling speed restrictions over roughly 3000 sections of track and at 850 sets of points. This was safety gone mad. In the last thirty years, the type of broken rail incident that resulted in the GNER train leaving the track at Hatfield, has caused six deaths. This figure includes the four people who lost their lives at Hatfield. The dangers which resulted from the myriad of speed restrictions to which train drivers had to adhere as a result, were far more likely to to lead to passenger fatalities than other broken rails. In fact, signals passed at danger (SPADs) are ten times more lethal than broken rails, according to government statistics. However, given the public scrutiny to which Railtrack is subjected and also the various performance targets set by the government, it is not hard to see why it reacted in this way.

What has become glaringly obvious over the course of the last seven months is that the current organisation of Britain's railways is untenable. A number of solutions have been proposed, the most sensible of which would be to reunite responsibility for the track and the trains which run upon it. This would give the franchise operators such as National Express, sole responsibility for their operations. Under such a scheme of vertical integration, Railtrack would be reduced to playing the far more reasonable role of a property owner, with limited maintenance responsibilities. It would also mean that aspirational companies such as Virgin, would have far greater incentive to invest in their business, rather than concentrating on winning a pointless war of attrition with Railtrack.

A more clearly defined system would make much more sense both to the companies involved and, more importantly, to the bemused passengers, who have become increasingly disenchanted with the performance of their nation's railways. If Lady Luck is especially generous, then the meddling officials at the Treasury may even be persuaded that the industry is better off without their constant interventions. This at least would mean that some form of certainty could be restored to an industry which has been starved of crucial private investment, as a result of its mercurial relationship with the government.

However, before such considerations, the best thing which could be done, believe it or not, is to regulate the regulators. Sir Alastair Morton, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), has been assigned by the government to help Railtrack to address their current problems. This all seems rather bizarre, given that Sir Alastair has no direct responsibility for any of his actions and that the SRA is largely to blame for many of Railtrack's problems. The creation of one regulatory body for the industry would go a long way to resolving the problem of having to answer to too many masters, who often are unsure of precisely what it is that they are trying to do with their wild wielding of power.

The latest in a long line of names which have gained unwanted celebrity as a result of their position in top management at Railtrack, is John Robinson. He has maybe learnt something from his predecessors such as the ill-fated Gerald Corbett and only taken the job as Railtrack chairman on a part-time basis. This is perhaps wise on his part, yet begs the obvious question as to how he can possibly expect to fulfil what is certainly a full-time job, on a part-time basis? If Britain's railways are to recover to a level which even begins to approach the service which is enjoyed by our French and German counterparts, then it is high time that some of the names with which have all become overly familiar, start to get things back on track.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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