Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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How to get the railways back on track

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THIS weekend marks the end of several railway franchise contracts. However late running trains will remain the norm while the government agonises over what to do about the railways. Smart money is on the corona crisis apologists opting for more civil service control and non-risk contracts. It looks like more muddle and fudge as lockdown lunacy destroys the economy.

In effect the government is renationalising the railways without admitting it. Already many train companies operate services on behalf of the state, taking a flat fee for doing so. This obviates any incentive to excel.

The original John Major privatisation saw British Rail split into Railtrack, which operated the lines, signals and stations, and dozens of so-called railway franchises. These were the trains themselves, many operated by bus companies, foreign investors and the occasional management buy-out. Private companies found the idea of accruing capital up front very attractive: season ticket-holders pay thousands every year before using the service. 

To complicate matters still further the rolling stock – trucks, carriages and locomotives – was given over to three train leasing companies and rented back to the franchisees. Railtrack outsourced its maintenance with disastrous results. 

Chris Grayling, erstwhile transport secretary, later admitted that the manner of railway privatisation had been a mistake. John Major was trying to ape Margaret Thatcher’s successful privatisations. Thatcher never touched railways. Legend has it that this was because her husband Denis played golf with the then BR chairman Robert Reid. A doughty defender of the iron road, Reid saved railways from the Iron Lady at the nineteenth hole. When he retired the search was on for a new chairman. Fortunately another Reid, Scots oilman Bob, stepped into the role. Although he had lost an arm as a child Reid was an excellent golfer. Everyone at BR breathed a sigh of relief. However Thatcher fell from power and was supplanted by Major, a cricketer. The game was up.

The real reason was that railways are complicated and need lots of subsidy. Eschewing the common sense shown by Mrs Thatcher, the Major administration demonstrated no fondness for rail. The ensuing debacle saw BR broken up into over 400 separate companies. 

It is worth noting that despite the chaos most railway staff kept the faith. Whole families work for the railways. Ask one of them who they work for and they’ll more than likely reply: ‘The railway.’ This loyalty kept the trains running despite bizarre barriers and acres of paperwork. The British have a love-hate relationship with railways – we invented them, after all. The better aspects of this are reflected in the staff. Certainly the new industry managed to pull down welcome investment. 

Running a railway is different from running a business. The whole thing is an intriguing mathematical and logistical challenge. From a suburban commuter line to a mile-long preserved steam railway, so much has to fit together at the same time to allow a train to run. People run railways for stimulus and satisfaction, not prestige or public approval. 

Throw in the huge contribution railways make to the green agenda and they really should be taken more seriously. People flock to use railways when the coaches are new, clean and spacious. Run realistic timetables, not civil servant-decreed aspirations. People are relaxed about the time the train takes to get there so long as it arrives when it says it will.  

Make sure trains are properly staffed. The recent guard kerfuffle demonstrated the shortcomings of the current model. Trying to save money by getting rid of guards on quarter-mile long commuter trains is absurd. Some franchises were let on the basis of the new owners being able to save a few quid by getting rid of guards. The lads sniffed a rat and called them out. The public want protection, ticket checking and reassurance.   

The basic problem with the railways is twofold. The splitting of wheel from rail is the most obvious. The second is that a new manager’s first loyalty is to the shareholder not the passenger. One incoming coach company chief drew a dollar sign on a blackboard. Startled railway staff were told: that is the share price and that’s all we care about. 

Passengers are termed customers, which they detest. Most commuters don’t pay for all of their ticket. It’s subsidised. ‘Commuter’ means one who has had his ticket price partially commuted – a bit like a death sentence although perhaps not with the same sense of relief. Passengers should not be regarded as cash cows, but hardy livestock joining in. 

It’s proved an abysmal system for staff and passengers alike. Franchises fold up. Railtrack went bust. The whole structure is top-heavy with bureaucrats. Bean-counters spend hours arguing delay attribution. If a late train is your fault – the driver didn’t turn up, the welding work on the line overran – your company pays the other side for the inconvenience. It soaks up time and money. 

Getting railways right could provide a much-needed fillip for the government. The solution is both simple and bold. Re-unite rail and wheel. Never mind track and trace, track and train should be the new mantra. Put the staff, railway professionals, in charge. People who have built whole careers in rail are better suited to running them efficiently than parliamentary petrolheads. 

Finally take the whole unified structure and make of it a public limited company. This way you close the gap between wheel and rail whilst widening it between owner and passenger. The new railway will be big enough to command investment and attract all the skill and verve we associate with private capital and committed entrepreneurship. It will be confident enough to allow local staff to take pro-passenger decisions on the ground. 

This will reassure the public and boost the fortunes of red-wall conservatism. It might even get the trains running on time. Have your tickets ready please. 

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John Musgrave
John Musgrave is a writer living in the West Country. His book Soldiers of the Heart is published by Border Tales and available on Amazon.

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