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Train strains

Railway politics in Britain have never been more interesting than today, says Paul Salveson.

The railways have had a hard time of it these last two years. Serious accidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield dented the public's confidence in rail as a safe form of transport (though it still is!). Yet it was the crash at Hatfield, when a Kings Cross-Leeds express derailed at high speed because of track faults, that really led the slide into chaos. Anxious to cover their backs, Railtrack slapped draconian speed restrictions across the network, causing months 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 Blair.

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 railways.

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 an hour.

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 and conditions.

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 wasted years.

September/October 2002