Still time to change trains

Labour should stop panicking about the rail crisis and accept the challenge, says Bernard Hughes. It could change the current system without losing political face.

The last decade has been one of very few certainties in politics. Yet railway policy was one of the few areas in which you thought you knew where you were.

Everyone knew that the Tories despised railways. Margaret Thatcher travelled by train once in her premiership – and that was only when an entire carriage was set aside for her. Her memoirs barely mention the greatest engineering feat of her time, the Channel Tunnel, apparently because she is still sulking over the fact that only a railway tunnel was practical, instead of the road tunnel she wanted. When Thatcher was gone, the Tories set about breaking up the railways and privatising it. Roger Freeman, the minister in charge, said the result would be a cheap and cheerful service for secretaries and the like – this was intended as praise, not criticism.

On the other hand, railway policy appeared to be one of the last bastions of pre-Blair or ‘old Labour’ policy. During the last parliament of the Tory government, Labour repeatedly promised to renationalise the railways. Even as 1997 approached and specific commitments to renationalisation wavered, there were plenty of commitments to a publicly-owned and publicly-accountable railway system.

Yet anyone who has travelled on a train recently has had plenty of time to reflect that, in the fourth year of a Labour government, the railways remain firmly in private hands, and face a crisis on a scale unknown in the history of the industry.

How has this crisis come about? Labour is happy to blame the previous government, and opinion polls suggest that most people agree. But Labour’s role in the last few years has also been questionable, at best. The jury is still out over whether the Blair government has merely not done enough to tackle the problem, or has actually made it worse.

Safety and investment
Two themes continually recur in the story of the railway crisis – safety and investment. They were brought most dramatically to public attention on 12 December 1988, when three trains collided at Clapham Junction, killing 35 people and injuring over 500. The inquiry revealed a dismal picture of the state of the nationalised industry. Poor working practices, ancient infrastructure and overcrowded carriages contributed to a miserable travelling experience where accidents of this kind were more likely, and were likely to be more serious when they did happen.

The Tories’ natural instincts – ‘if in doubt, privatise it’ – failed them on this occasion. It is said that arch-privatiser Nicholas Ridley, after discussions with his senior civil servants, was the person who persuaded Thatcher that no workable privatisation scheme could be devised. Somebody somewhere must have been very convincing indeed.

Instead, a programme of large-scale investment in the nationalised industry was promised. As part of this investment an automatic train protection (ATP) system was to be installed, a system that not only stops trains if they pass red signals but also regulates their speed so that they can definitely be stopped in time if they do pass signals in error. The report into the Clapham Junction accident commented acidly that it had taken British Rail 30 years to install an earlier type of signal warning system, and that installation was still not complete. Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state, told us that this time it would be different – the system would be installed quickly and cost would be no object.

Believe it if you like (I don’t), but history took a different course. In 1992 the Tories unexpectedly won another general election; Thatcher, Parkinson and Ridley were all gone; and public spending programmes were about to be slashed to ribbons. The railway plan was probably doomed anyway but the Major government was re-elected on a manifesto promise to privatise railways (in fact it said ‘franchising’ rather than ‘privatisation’).

So work started on producing the scheme that Ridley had concluded was unworkable. The Major government can’t be faulted for the money and effort it put into it. Armies of civil servants worked on the project, and two new regulatory bodies were set up, called OPRAF and ORR (not Ofrail – the jokes were too obvious). Over £450 million was spent on private sector lawyers, management consultants and accountants to help the process along.

The result was an extraordinary creation. A unified railway was broken into countless parts. The plan was that 25 train operating companies would hire trains from three rolling stock companies, to run franchised services on track owned by a separate public sector infrastructure company but maintained by a multitude of contractors and subcontractors, on access contracts specified and let by one of the regulatory bodies and based on prices approved by the other, in competition with other train companies, known as ‘open access’ operators, subject to guidance issued by government, funded by subsidy directed at … well, you get the idea. The sheer number of contractual relationships in the system was bewildering.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, halfway through its final term the government changed its mind about keeping the infrastructure company in the public sector and rushed to sell it off in the middle of its negotiations with prospective train operators. This bizarre and damaging volte-face raised the princely sum of £1.5 billion to fund a tiny pre-election tax cut.

Just before the 1997 election, the last piece of the jigsaw was sold off and the new structure for the railways was put in place. Come the election, of course, they were slaughtered anyway, and it was left for the incoming Labour government to decide what to do with it.

John Prescott denounced the system as a national disgrace and talked of change, or at least of recognising the need for change. The scale of the problem was so great that drastic action seemed a logical step.

Flawed mechanism
The real problem, though, was not just that the industry was fragmented. In fact, some of the fragmentation was already starting to be undone. The fragmented system was supposed to promote competition, but competition between passenger services could never be meaningful. This meant that the number of train operators reached a ceiling, and then some of the companies merged. Other mergers between different parts of the industry were waved through by the competition authorities, as earlier intentions to keep different sections of the industry separate were quietly forgotten.

The most serious problem faced by the railway system was where the money was going. There was plenty of money swilling around the system, but the mechanism for investment was totally flawed.

Train operating companies (TOCs) make their money in two ways. First, they receive subsidy. The amount of subsidy rose substantially as a result of privatisation, partly because it was recognised that the fragmented system would start off inherently less efficient. In most cases, companies won contracts based on very high levels of subsidy in the early years, with that subsidy declining in later years. (Some of the companies have shamelessly blamed their problems on falling subsidy, as if this was a recent decision by the government, rather than a result of contracts they freely entered into.)

In principle, this subsidy should filter down to Railtrack, the infrastructure company, in the form of fees paid by the TOCs for running over its track. The theory was that if the TOC wanted a better service from Railtrack, it would acquire it by paying higher fees. Suppose, for instance, that the TOC wanted to run more and faster trains. This would mean that Railtrack’s track and signalling would need to be improved so the track access charge would rise to raise the money to pay for the improvements.

Second, the train companies collect and keep the fares from the passengers. This is the difference between the railways’ franchise operation and contracted-out services, such as London buses, where the fares accrue to the body commissioning the service.

The trouble with allowing train companies to keep revenue from fares is that the risks and rewards don’t line up. The theory was, if a TOC wants to run more and faster trains it would run a better service as a result, and more fare-paying passengers would want to use it. The TOC would be rewarded for its early investment by raising more money from passengers in later years.

In reality, the number of passengers using the railways has very little to do with how good the service is. This is especially true of the very large commuter franchises – for their passengers, trains are the only sensible way of getting from home to work.

Economic growth
So, while the number of passengers using the railways increased substantially in the second half of the 1990s, this was not because the railways’ private owners and operators had done anything to make the service better. It was because the country – and especially those parts of the country most dependent on commuter services – enjoyed steady economic growth. More people had jobs to go to. The public sector-owned London Underground enjoyed the same rise in passenger numbers in the same period without the dubious benefits of privatisation.

This was a boom time for train companies. They were collecting large subsidies and, through no effort of their own, their fare revenue had gone up as well. And because they had a captive market, they could sustain this level of profit without having to do anything difficult or expensive like investing money to improve the service they were paid to provide.

In fact, many of them quickly realised that they could make even more money if they made their service worse. They could save wage costs by laying off train drivers. So what if this meant that when a driver didn’t turn up because he or she was ill there would be no-one to take over and the train would be cancelled? The passengers would buy their season tickets come what may. The TOCs could pay less to the rolling stock companies by running trains with four carriages instead of eight. It didn’t matter that the passengers were now packed in like sardines – there were just as many of them and they were paying just as much money.

Granted, the regulators had power to impose penalties on companies whose services got worse. But these penalties were puny in comparison to the sorts of profits that could be made. So the money in the system never went into improving track, signalling and the like. The TOCs let the service deteriorate, paid their token penalties, and watched the money roll in. Huge sums in public subsidy, intended for upgrading railway services, went straight into the pockets of the TOCs’ shareholders while the fabric of the system continued to decline.

In the meantime, the ATP system announced by Cecil Parkinson failed to materialise. The government’s expensive consultants warned that the cost of installing it, and the risks associated with the technology, would be unattractive to the private bidders hoping to take over the railway. So it was quietly abandoned.

Fatal accidents
Three fatal rail accidents during the period of the Labour government have since focused attention on the malaise. It is too simplistic to blame these specific disasters on privatisation (although the two worst accidents, train collisions at Southall and Ladbroke Grove, almost certainly would have been prevented by ATP). The underlying problems behind the accidents were underinvestment and poor quality control. Much the same as those to blame for the Clapham Junction crash – which reminds us that a unified, nationalised system is capable of producing fatal accidents as well.

Even if the answer was not going back to the British Rail system, it was clear in 1997 that something radical had to be done. Instead, Labour set about trying to make the flawed structure work better. They blamed poorly-drafted, rushed contracts, as they tried to manage the privatised system better, as if this would overcome the flaws in the system.

A Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) has been set up to provide a more unified regulatory system. But, far from dismantling the failed franchise system, the SRA is hoping to solve the problem by issuing a new round of franchises. The difference, it claims, is that this system will not be rushed so the bad deals obtained under the Tories can be avoided. The franchises will be much longer, it says, more like 20 years than the seven years that was common in the first round of contracts.

In theory, these arrangements should reduce the impact of the worst abuses. Unlike under the Tories, contracts should not be signed at any price, and longer contracts will remove some of the disincentives to investment from TOCs (in the old system, there was no point in commissioning improvements that might not be in place until your contract was already over). It may be that the SRA will be able to act as a coordinating body and facilitate some investment agreements.

But these changes are small and leave the main problems in place. Worse still, they will mean that Labour becomes politically committed to the system – its fingerprints are now on it. Now that Labour has put its own regulatory structure in place, and has overseen letting the long franchises, it cannot simply blame the problems of the system on the mess left by the Tories. It has to be able to answer the question: what did it do to make that mess better?

Start again
However, there is still time to start again. Paradoxically, the opportunity has been provided by the most recent multi-fatality rail accident at Hatfield. ‘Paradoxically’, because the accident was small in transport terms (though this is of course no consolation to the victims) and not so clearly connected to privatisation. But its effect has been to set the various actors in the system in conflict with each other and reveal the potential chaos that came with fragmentation.

A combination of factors led very swiftly from this accident to the current crisis in the whole rail system. Railtrack, already sensitive to its extreme unpopularity, sought to control the problem by launching a major programme to check track conditions across the whole network (the Hatfield accident having been caused by a broken rail which apparently had not been checked and maintained properly).

The TOCs went along with this plan, even though it meant huge disruption to their operations. It is not entirely clear why they did so – but with 25 different TOCs, it seems likely that 25 different routes to this decision were taken. Doubtless, in each case, it was a combination of the following: underestimating the likely disruption; assuming that they could be insulated from the cost, either because it would all fall on Railtrack, or because there’d be some kind of government bale-out; a sense that they were no more popular than Railtrack and might not improve their chances of renewed contracts if they were seen to stand in the way of a safety measure; and realising that once sufficient numbers of the TOCs had acquiesced in the plan, there was no point in the rest holding out.

Meanwhile, the safety authorities played their part in the crisis. In autumn 2000, the Railway Inspectorate was especially sensitive to its political position. A few years earlier, it had approved the privatisation arrangements for the rail industry. As a result, it now found itself accused of being a soft touch and therefore sharing culpability for the accidents that had occurred since privatisation. Within months, it was due to be asked to approve safety arrangements for the London Underground public-private partnership, which was being attacked for undermining safety by repeating the fragmented system imposed on the railways.

The safety authorities’ (over)reaction to Hatfield was to impose huge numbers of speed restrictions all over the network. Within a matter of days there was no railway timetable you could rely on, and if you did find a train your journey could be hours longer than expected. Services between major cities were slower than they were a century ago. Farcical stories became commonplace – such as trains being cancelled because not enough speed restriction signs could be found.

It didn’t help that the wettest autumn on record put parts of the network under water for days at a time. (Actually it did help Railtrack, which was able to avoid some financial penalties by attributing problems to flooding rather than its track programme.)

Time passed. A crisis that most people had expected to last maybe a week or two seemed to have no end. Ministers made repeated promises to the public that the situation would be better by the end of the week, but had no means of actually delivering the promises. They resorted to calling the heads of the railway industry in for summit meetings every day. These meetings seem to have done nothing apart from create the impression of activity.

The many companies that make up the rail industry also seem bewildered at the depth and duration of the crisis. Suggestions have begun to circulate that some of the companies, in taking the actions that precipitated the crisis, may have broken contractual terms or acted outside their legal powers. The large number of lawyers who are needed to run the huge contractual matrix of the industry have scented blood. It seems quite possible that the industry will self-cannibalise as the many companies that form the industry sue each other into oblivion over who should pay for the chaos.

Labour noise
In the meantime, Labour makes lots of noise. John Prescott has hinted that some of the biggest companies could lose their operating licences over the shambles. But what good would that do without a new structure? The tragedy and farce of the last few months provides an opportunity for decisive action by the government. It does not have to depart from the ideas of the third way and the public-private partnership to restructure the railways.

It could set up a public-sector infrastructure company, through which the public funds needed for improvements would be directed. This would avoid the problem of the TOCs salting the subsidy away. Giving the infrastructure company responsibility for all aspects of the fabric of the system, rather than separating track maintenance from rolling stock provision, as happens now, could provide a more unified safety structure. It could also provide service contracts rather than franchises, allowing meaningful comparisons to be made with the likely costs of providing equivalent services in the public sector, which would ensure that private sector involvement was on the basis of value for money rather than profiteering.

This approach could drive out the main structural problems in the railway system. It would not be a return to the old British Rail system, and would be consistent with Labour’s approach to public-private partnerships elsewhere, so no political loss of face would be involved. It would certainly be expensive, involving the costs of nationalising the infrastructure and paying penalties for terminating contracts. But the current system is expensive, and shows no sign of being anything other than hopeless.

There is a remarkable political consensus for radical reform – even the Daily Mail accepts that privatisation was a mistake and the current structure is a mess. This is the best opportunity Labour will have to undo it – and because of its emerging complicity in the system, it may well be its last. If it stops panicking and accepts the challenge, the prize could be very great indeed.

Bernard Hughes is a member of the ILP.

1 Comment

  1. Winter 2001 - ILP
    24 February 2009

    […] Ann Black describes the underground manoeuvres which damage democracy at the National Policy Forum. Still time to change trains Bernard Hughes picks over the origins and entrails of the railway crisis. Gone but not forgotten […]

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