he railways have had a hard time of it
these last two years. Serious accidents at Southall, Ladbroke
and Hatfield dented the public's confidence in rail as a
safe form of transport (though it still is!). Yet it was
at Hatfield, when a Kings Cross-Leeds express derailed at
high speed because of track faults, that really led the
into chaos. Anxious to cover their backs, Railtrack slapped
draconian speed restrictions across the network, causing
of misery - and no doubt extra road accidents due to the
switch from rail to road travel which resulted.
The byzantine structure of contracts and sub-contracts, with
no-one willing to take responsibility for safety critical
areas, was revealed in all its ugliness. Railtrack's share
price plummeted, and finally Stephen Byers pulled the plug.
Railtrack was placed in administration on October 7th 2001,
with promises that the Government would create a not-for-profit
company to take over the nation's railways. Byers did the
right thing, despite being pilloried by the media - he paid
for his bravery by being dumped earlier this year by Tony
The appointment of Alistair Darling as secretary of state
in a reformed Department for Transport has not resulted in
a reversal of the Government's commitment to seek a 'third
way' solution to the Railtrack problem. Network Rail, the
not-for-dividend company which has is set to take over Railtrack's
role as owner and manager of the railway infrastructure, has
got enough financial backing and support from the Government's
Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) to make a real go of it. The
left should be cheering the Government on, but so far I've
not heard too much of it. Yet what we're seeing is a re-assertion
of state control through the SRA. No-one's calling it nationalisation,
except cheeky chappies like The Independent's Chris Wolmar,
but it will have similar results.
The passenger will see little actual change in how railways
are run for the time being. Network Rail will be responsible
for the track, signalling and buildings, but train operations
- and management of most stations - will remain with the private
companies like Connex, Stagecoach, First and National Express.
But here again some big, subtle changes are taking place.
The Strategic Rail Authority, under the new leadership of
Richard Bowker, is re-assessing the franchising process which
the Tories imposed.
The SRA is likely to take a much more pro-active role, essentially
that of a contract manager, rather than letter of franchises.
The difference is that the SRA will set very clear outputs
for each operator, leaving little for the train operator to
do once the contract has been signed other than get on with
the job of providing an agreed service, at the right quality.
The contract period will be around 15 years, with periodic
reviews. If the operator does not deliver, they risk losing
the contract. Within less than a decade, it's fair to say
that a form of state control has been re-asserted over the
We may have to wait another ten years before we see the full
results of this in terms of improved services, new railways
and the sort of reliability you get with railways on the continent,
but the structure is in place and investment is promised through
Gordon Brown's Comprehensive Spending Review.
Yet the supply of cash is not limitless. One of the biggest
problems facing the SRA is the spiralling costs of even modest
enhancements to the network. A new station with two platforms
and basic facilities is costing around £2 million, compared
with similar projects in BR days coming in at around £500,000
in today's terms. Much of this is down to lack of control
over contractors and sub-contractors, combined with large
payouts to train operators for disruption caused during construction.
Recently, proposals to electrify the short branch from Oxted
to Uckfield were thrown out because costs were more like those
of building a new railway rather than putting in the extra
third rail. At the same time, ever-more stringent safety regulation
is being applied in a rigid way across the entire network
- yet what's right for a busy 125mph main line may not be
quite so necessary for a 50mph branch line with one train
A further problem facing the industry, and one which is increasingly
involving the SRA, is pay and conditions. ASLEF has been adept
at exploiting its strong position in the labour market to
drive up their members' pay with the strategic aim of re-creating
national pay bargaining. This is anathema to the private companies,
but may be an intelligent solution to an intractable problem.
The subsidised regional operators are effectively acting
as training bodies for the more profitable InterCity companies
which offer better rates of pay. In the North of England,
Arriva was forced to offer a substantial increase to drivers
to stop them leaving to other companies like Virgin and GNER.
This resulted in drivers at other regional companies wanting
the same, and Arriva's own conductors striking for a proportionate
increase! Centralised pay bargaining was achieved with the
pre-1948 private companies and it could be re-established.
This could involve creating two or three categories of operation,
with InterCity, South-East and regional having their own pay
This would provide a better career structure for staff and
avoid the chaos which we have at present. ASLEF's tactics
may not be to everyone's liking, but their goal is right.
Railway politics have never been more interesting. Privatisation
as imposed during the death throes of the Major Government
is finished. We're getting an idea of the future shape of
the industry: an arms-length but Government-controlled 'social
enterprise' looking after the infrastructure, tightly-controlled
private sector companies running the trains to public sector
contracts, and the Government's SRA calling most (well, all)
of the shots. But what a lot it has cost us to get here. Ten