Daily Telegraph: 29/03/2008
By Jeff Randall
"Trains back to normal today," was the headline in Tuesday's Financial Times. "Network Rail said the engineering improvements at the weekend had gone to schedule," was the story underneath.
Inherently flawed: the Conservatives bungled the industry's privatisation, splitting the track company from the operators
The pink paper rarely gets the facts quite so wrong, but one of its news staff had apparently made the error of believing, and then recycling, the rubbish on Network Rail's self-congratulatory website.
This became obvious when I arrived that morning at Shenfield station, just before 8am. Services into the City weren't merely disrupted; they were in disarray. Crowds of wretched commuters were already fighting for places in taxis. It was like a bit of Heathrow in Essex suburbia.
Engineering works, which had closed the line into Liverpool Street during the Easter weekend, were due to have been finished in good time. Instead, a related signalling problem was causing rush-hour chaos.
In all, there were 126 hours of delays and 500 cancellations. Punctuality on National Express's Great Eastern services collapsed to 55 per cent. For regulars, it was a familiar case of low morale, high anxiety and a primeval desire to put the head of an incompetent railway manager on the end of a stick.
At first, Network Rail denied that the problem had anything to do with engineering over-runs. The foul-up was just "a horrible coincidence", the company said. But later, under pressure from National Express, the track operator admitted that it was a "failure of our infrastructure".
Six years ago, Peter Hain, then a cabinet minister, said what frequent travellers had long known from bitter experience: "We [Britain] have the worst railways in Europe. It is an intractable problem."
Since then, little has changed. Despite massive government subsidies, about £5 billion a year, and a surge in demand for rail services, our national network remains, according to Rod Smith, research professor of railway engineering at Imperial College, "on a treadmill of mediocrity".
Worse still, there is no prospect of improvement. The structure of our railways is inherently flawed. The Conservatives bungled the industry's privatisation, splitting the track company from the operators. The result has been open warfare between the two sides, irreconcilable conflicts of interest, and a breakdown of effective planning.
In the middle is the Government, which is interfering in the day-to-day operations with ever greater intensity and diminishing success.
Professor Colin Divall of York University's Institute of Railway Studies says: "It is interesting to note that the micro-management of the railways by the state is now at arguably its highest-ever level. The problem is the lack of a clear overall transport policy."
The operators' seven-year franchise contracts contain extraordinary impositions by the Department for Transport, including how many carriages can be run on each route. Civil servants are dictating timetables and the design of new rolling stock. It is a recipe for costly failure.
Overseeing this miserable confection of in-fighting and point-scoring is the Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, one of the least effective ministers of this or any other government. Having been associated with several embarrassing U-turns, including the climb-down over home information packs, she has neither the confidence nor the authority to be radical.
Virgin Trains, which runs services between London and Glasgow, is warning that Network Rail's proposed programme of works on the West Coast Main Line will cause months of disruption and severe over-crowding for the rest of the year. In short, says Virgin, the scheme for upgrading is "unworkable".
By contrast, Network Rail insists that any postponement would have a deleterious impact on other parts of the system. Who's right? Who's wrong? Who knows? What is clear is that this is no way to run an essential national asset. Fixing what we've got cannot be done. We need to start again.
The Government is keen to stress its green credentials, yet seems to be part of a covert conspiracy to drive more and more people back on to the roads. Faced with a demand for rail that way outstrips supply, its policy is to allow train companies to jack up fares on services that are already among the most expensive in the world. It's a depressing example of more for less.
The industry's fragmentation has led to chronic structural weaknesses. Too many organisations are involved in decision-making. Accountability has been lost in a mire of bureaucracy. As rail travellers discover with dispiriting regularity, it's not easy to find out who is ultimately responsible.
Network Rail's status is a joke. When the company screws up, as it did over New Year maintenance schedules, heavy fines are imposed by the rail regulator. The trouble is, as a quasi-state body, all its financial obligations are underwritten by the taxpayer. So we end up suffering twice.
Another area that needs to be looked at is the role of the big banks as lessors of kit to the train operators. One insider told me they had "a licence to print money". Should some of that profit be used to improve services?
If David Cameron wants to put some distance between his new-look party and Labour on an issue that affects voters of all ages and different persuasions, right across the country, a plan for our railways is surely it. His predecessors got denationalisation wrong. Labour inherited that mess, but has made things worse. Now is the time to be bold.
One year ago, when Chris Grayling was shadow transport secretary, he made a speech in which he set out his ideas for an overhaul of British railways. He said: "We think, with hindsight, that the complete separation of track and train into separate businesses … was not right."
Grayling was correct. Opponents claim that European Union rules would prevent the realignment of track and operations, but, as the French and others have proved, if a national government really wants to achieve something there is always a route round the road block.
Consolidation is necessary if cohesion is to be restored. A way must be found to restore vertical integration. What's more, the Government has to face up to the reality that a world-class rail system cannot be acquired on the cheap.
Labour is spending at least £600 billion of taxpayers' money every year. Fortunes are being squandered on welfare handouts that encourage idleness and lock in poverty. Britain would be a less polluted, less congested, more efficient and more attractive place if a few billion pounds were diverted from the social security budget into investment for a 21st-century railway network.
Such action would, of course, require vision and courage. Unfortunately, these are not qualities with which the current incumbents of Downing Street are well acquainted.
So, I fear, for rail travellers the outlook remains bleak: management by Sir Humphry, years of above-inflation fare rises, a deterioration in conditions as over-crowding increases, and yet more mornings like last Tuesday.
The state of the railways, and public transport in general in the UK, reflects the total incompetence prevalent nowadays in running anything in the UK for the benefit of the public. Too many people creaming off profit, and not enough effort going into actually providing a service, based on total contempt for the recipients of the service. (See also NHS, education, local council, central government for similar attitudes).
In Europe, I can travel a 100 miles or so on a train for around 20 Euros. In the UK, a similar journey, e.g. Bristol to London, will cost the best part of £100. And in Europe there is none of the built-in complexity to buying a ticket to ensure further ripoffs and administration costs. I would love to travel long distance by train in the UK, I simply can't afford it. Going by car is cheaper because I have to own a car in any case (due to lack of other forms of public transport), so the fixed costs are there anyway.
Rail tickets are priced so as to control the number of people who are willing to buy a ticket, so the railways can manage the number of passengers. Contrast with "green" policies to get people off the road - one contradicts the other, and the consumer always loses.
Until we control greed and incompetence in the UK, it will only get worse. The tax payer is being ripped off to an unbelievable extent to prop up all these failing services.
Aggie on March 28, 2008 2:35 PM
All you nationalisers and re-integrators. Stop!
The EU won't let the government do it; even if they wanted to. See my earlier post. It's all in EU Directive 91/440.
You could, however, refer to the £10billion per year the government sends to the EU and work out what a great railway system we could get for that. No wonder the French TGV is so good. we've been paying for it!
Cynic on March 28, 2008 2:06 PM
People always blame "the railways" as if they were some sentient organism, responsible for their own failings.
The railways are the victim of a failure to invest that started with WW2.
The cost of WW2 prevented modernisation which resulted in steam power lasting until 1968.
Various governments curtailed investment in order to prevent tax rises and thereby curry favour with voters.
The Tory government of 1955 decided to run down the railways after the 10 day long railwaymens strike.
The roads lobby have successfully demanded more and more money for roads at the expense of rail investment.
Successive governments denied railway investment as car ownership increased.
Initially the prospect of a car owning nation made railways less and less important. Latterly, policy has been to get more and more people into cars in order to raise revenue by taxing all aspects of private motoring to the absolute maximum.
What is certain however is that the private car will become more and more expensive to run and less and less fun to drive as ever increasing costs take their toll.
One day the rails will be as important to our descendants as they were to our ancestors, certainly in cities and for longer journeys. Cities will ban cars and unless battery/hydrogen power improves out of all recognition, journeys of over 100 miles will have to be by train.
Renationalisation is imperative. You cannot have a vital infrastructure run as a profit centre by spivs like Branson.
Whether people like it or not, it WILL have to be done - and the sooner the better. Look at nuclear power - if our gormless politicians had been doing their jobs instead of pandering to the green lobby, the new generation of nuclear stations ( and I live near one ) would have been started 15 yrs ago.
Will we have to wait until Russian oil is $250 a barrel and petrol is £12.50 a gallon before our utterly spineless and dithering leaders actually DO something about the railways ?????
paul atherton on March 28, 2008 1:00 PM
We need a situation analysis as to the state of rail infrastructure - divided into that serving London commuters and the arterial and branch network serving the rest of the UK.
All I ever see from a train (albeit a very new one with the service in the hands of the private franchise holders) is decay, decrepit, filthy stations and the results of half a century or more of poor management, under-investment and rampant asset stripping of former railways land - funds from which were never used to enhance what was left.
It seems to me that there must be more investment in the track and signals, and in stations themselves - including enlarging them for longer, even double-decker, trains - which still represent a single movement on the congested lines - but carry far more passengers.
Go to Holland and you will see double decker trains, go to a major city like Barcelona and you will see them - routed under the very heart of the city and integrated with the underground.
So why pays? The traveller must pay unless the government is making a commitment from state funds for public transport support. The rail franchise companies must pay - because they can make less profit and pay more over to the track and infrastructure side for enhancements.
I'm left with a feeling that despite what amounts to renationalisation, the network is fragmented, badly run, and inefficiently maintained - both in manner and cost management terms. The again is this not a given when the state runs this sort of thing?
Put the Network out to tender, to serious players who can afford to upgrade it - and to cross-subsidise the deal if they get their sums wrong - and link the deal to a set of serious targets for enhancements and changes to the whole system. Vision is what is needed - and a focus on putting rail access where people want it, not where it was right when the Victorians built it all.
simon coulter on March 28, 2008 12:02 PM
Jeff Randall is spot on, as ever. I would go further as many others have advocated-the answer to the current mess is vertical re- integration under umbrella of British Rail. The railways could then return to being run under a single, accountable organisation. The sectors operating within BR in 1980's, (such as Intercity and Regional Railways) were performing well under BR-Intercity was turning a profit. The hash of the Conservative privatisation has resulted in millions of pounds of taxpayers cash being wasted on bureaucracy and generating profits for the bus companies that now operate our railways.
The government -at a subsidy of £5 billion per year-is underwriting the railways far more than ever under BR-yet we the travelling public just don't see the benefits for the reasons Jeff describes. Re-integration-and allow railway professionals to run the railway-it's the only answer to the current, embarrassing mess.
Jonathan Watson on March 28, 2008 11:14 AM
Margaret Thatcher was the best friend the City of London ever had with her string of privatisations and favours to the bankers. Not only trains were sacrificed but the national telephone company WATER ELECTRICITY. Austin-Rover to BAe for a few dollars more....which they ran on a shoestring hoping that HONDA would provide the necessary support. BMW did that for a short time. Now the Indians think they can run Jaguar/LandRover...another false dawn. The problem with all this assett-stripping is that half the country is foreign owned. That would be impossible in Germany or Japan which remain the most successful industrial nations on this planet.
richard bond on March 28, 2008 11:14 AM
Let engineers run the infrastructure. It would then not be held together by string and chewing gum to keep the money coming in.
Lets get back to a highly skilled workforce trained within the industry rather than a ragbag of contractors. I cant come down on contractors to hard though, I do know someone working on safety systems who served a full apprenticeship in NZ. (as a butcher). I can quote many other examples if you like.
Mind the gap.
mike mines on March 28, 2008 11:13 AM
Track and train are separated right across Europe. Witness NED in Holland and DB in Germany for starters. The separation was decreed by the EU which passed Directive 91/440, which prescribed, among other things, the (formal) separation of national railways into a two separate companies, one which deals with the infrastructure, and the other which deals with the transport activities.
Major did botch it in that they went for a private network rather than a state owned one, like the rest of the EU. We did it first, so maybe that was the EU's way of trying it out on us and then rolling our a bug free version to the rest of the EU.
The real malaise, in the UK, is due to years of under-investment, probably right back to WW2 and beyond to create an integrated rail network. Just look at London as an example, with no direct rail links between major stations. There are also two completely different types of electrification; overhead and third rail, plus many diesel only mainlines. The rest of Europe has, at least, standardised on one type of electricication and uses this for all long distance mainline services.
Cynic on March 28, 2008 10:34 AM
Private sector ownership has failed to provide a public service on the railways. Nationalisation would be even worse. We need to convert the railways to mutual ownership, like building societies, with the passengers as the majority stakeholders. There is a Downing Street petition to this effect. I encourage you all to sign it.
Robert C on March 28, 2008 8:45 AM
Why oh why do the British never learn? All we need to do is privatise these state-run companies and everything will be fine. Have we forgotten that nice Mrs Thatcher who used to tell us about the dead hand of government? If only we had listened to her back then, we'd now have the most efficient transport system in the world.
We'd have clean trains that have a seat for every commuter. They'd all run on time, and it would be incredibly cheap to travel. She promised it all. But, no. We chose to keep British Rail and we now have to live with the crippling fares, the record subsidies and arguably the worst service in history.
And just imagine if British Airways and BAA had been privatised. Yesterday's debacle at Heathrow Terminal 5 would never have happened. Every flight would have taken off on time and no piece of baggage would have gone astray. But every organisation in the public sector is stuffed with lazy bureaucrats who take constant tea breaks and are totally incompetent. While every private sector company is full of lean and hungry entrepreneurs who are wedded to efficiency because they respond to the finely tuned incentives provided by a perfect market. So we have only ourselves to blame.
Yes, imagine if we'd only listened to Mrs Thatcher and privatised these industries. We'd all be living a Utopian dream now.
John on March 28, 2008 8:40 AM
Shame on you, I thought you were above the Bryony Gordon class of journalist in using your platform to get a private whinge off your chest!
Get back to bashing bankers - Mr Diamond's scandalous pay for example.
That aside, the railways are a mess because it was a privatisation too far. The Tories rushed it through when they knew they would lose the election and Thatcher had said public transport was for losers. Blair, more laissez-faire than most tories, was never going to consider the N-word and so privatisation was to remain.
Unfortunately this meant that shareholder interests were put ahead of passengers so as long as a profit was made then the industry was 'doing well'.
The other problem (apparent in the financial sector with the FSA) is that the regulation was too weak and too close to the industry it was meant to regulate. How else can the train operators, who make a nice profit each year, justify inflation-busting price rises? Where is the incentive for efficiency if the railway companies can hike prices if they see a profit shortfall?
The railway industry is too reliant on infrastructure for privatisation to work - it's not easy to set up a new railway.
I agree we need to spend more money but not if it's going into the back pockets of Stagecoach shareholders or Richard Branson (wake up to the Virgin con people!). We need tough regulation based on customer satifaction or a return to a nationalised system.
Joe Schmo from Cocomo on March 28, 2008 8:37 AM
Railways are a disaster and always will be because the British do not let engineers run them. They are technical systems requiring integration and lawyers and accountants cannot do it.
The shrivelled Post-Beeching railway has little presence outside the South-East and is really a novelty although cities like Leeds pretend it is a railway hub compared to Frankfurt or Cologne it is a backwater.
The British are a race of property-developers and that is what Railtrack became under Bob Horton, the idea of running an integrated railway died when the old freight yards and inner-city land banks were expolited for anything but railway travel
CCTV on March 28, 2008 6:45 AM
It's worth reflecting that in the days of vertically integrated BR they were able to provide a mediocre service for the paltry sum of about £1.5bn in today's money.
I was amused by the comment about the lack of a "clear, overall transport policy." The Victorians has no transport policy at all, clear or otherwise, but it didn't stop them building a railway connecting every town in the country.
Patrick Crozier on March 28, 2008 4:34 AM
Bring back British Rail. At least when I worked in London in the 50's, I could catch the 5.20pm to Bedford and be home 40 minutes later, and on time.Oh yes, and it cost only five bob return.
Ian Harrison on March 28, 2008 2:48 AM
This is a re-run of the 1960's.
The tories screwed the railway system completely, and a Labour government just left the mess, and even compounded it, in some cases.
Now, 10 years after "privatisation" the same scenario has appeared.
Do you realise that the "reason" we can't have electrification and high-speed lines is the government forecast (still adhered to) that oil prices will fall to $35 a barrel by 2012, so we won't need railways, anyway?
G. Tingey on March 28, 2008 12:21 AM