The Wrong Track
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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