British rail: Take back the track
Britain's railways have gone from public service to public laughing stock in just five years since the great sell-off. But no-one was laughing in the six months since the Hatfield crash. The network has been plunged into an unprecedented chaos. Every newspaper has been full of travellers' tales of woe, as even the simplest journey has become a voyage into the unknown. The man charged with the government to bring order out of the chaos — Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) head Alistair Morton said that the industry has suffered a "collective nervous breakdown". The Railtrack saga surpasses even soap-opera standards, with different private sector interests squabbling over how costs should be met. The following review of how this ludicrous situation came about is from the British left daily Morning Star. It contains many lessons for us in Australia, as our railways are also being taken down a similar track. Between 1994 and 1996, the public railway system, British Rail (BR), was broken into 100 different pieces, each sold off to the private sector. Alongside Railtrack, which was effectively given away to the stock market in 1996, the fragments include 25 train-operating companies, 13 maintenance and infrastructure companies, a handful of rail-freight undertakings and three companies which own the trains and other rolling stock. Railtrack owns the infrastructure of the railways including 20,000 miles of track, 750 tunnels, 2,500 stations and 40,000 viaducts and bridges. Never has so much been given away for so little to so few. The managers who bought the rolling-stock companies, for example, saw an investment of approximately 100,000 pounds (approx. A$290,000) apiece turned into 17 million pounds (approx. A$20.3 million) within a matter of months as they sold off their companies. Railtrack shareholders have seen their dividends soar most recently in the aftermath of the Hatfield crash, surely a landmark in greedy corporate insensitivity. A fragmented system driven by profit rather than public service has meant: * insufficient investment in safety and train protection; * inadequate maintenance of the railway infrastructure; * inefficient planning and co-ordination of services; * big dividend payments for shareholders. For five years, Britain has suffered from an inferior and increasingly unsafe service on the privatised railways, a dismal record of profiteering and incompetence punctuated by the tragedies at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield. In 1997, seven people lost their lives in the Southall disaster. In 1999, the Ladbroke Grove train crash cost 31 lives. In 2000, when a train was derailed at Hatfield, four people were killed. This was followed by a national safety scare and chaos on the railways. The last incident, however, has been a catalyst for action. In January, the three rail unions — TSSA, RMT and ASLEF — launched the Take Back the Track campaign. The campaign aims to restore Railtrack to public ownership as the first step towards bringing the whole of the railway industry back to the public sector. The campaign has already attracted a great deal of support, including over 100 MPs, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Gymru, as well as the Greens, Ken Livingstone, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), other unions, environmental and community groups. Indeed, all the recent opinion polls suggest that this could be one of the most popular campaigns of the moment. A recent BBC poll recorded a three to one vote in favour of a return to public ownership of the railways. Support for returning just Railtrack to public ownership is even higher. With every new day bringing further bad news for Railtrack, it's no wonder that support for the Take Back the Track campaign is growing so quickly. As taxpayers' money is being thrown into what often seems like a bottomless pit, the public is quite right to ask where all this money is going. So far, the taxpayer has subsidised Railtrack to the tune of several billion pounds. According to some estimates, maybe as much as one-third of this sum has gone directly into the pockets of shareholders. To add insult to injury, Railtrack is now appealing directly to the government for a 2 billion pounds bail-out, in order to prevent a financial crisis, after it was turned down by Sir Alistair Morton and the Strategic Rail Authority. The move effectively means that the company expects the taxpayer to cover the cost of the Hatfield disaster, which it originally said that its shareholders would pay for. Railtrack seems to be implying that, unless the government comes up with the cash, projects such as the TPWS safety system, the West Coast mainline modernisation and the Thameslink 2000 scheme, which includes rebuilding London's King's Cross interchange, could be in jeopardy. Railtrack chief executive Steve Marshall has admitted that the company is not in a position to commit itself to any other projects and can not even afford to upgrade the East Coast mainline without extra funding. Railtrack has said that it won't rebuild the line until the franchises have been sorted out — a case of privatisation equals paralysis. This comes on the back of last week's announcement that Railtrack's cost predictions for updating the East Coast mainline were to double, which led to the rail authority suspending the bidding process. Improvements could now be delayed by up to a year because the SRA has put on hold a decision on whether GNER or Virgin should run high-speed services on the line between London and Edinburgh. (The SRA was set up by the government to "provide a focus and strategic direction for Britain's railways, to encourage investment and manage the passenger rail franchises".) The Rail Passengers' Council said that the decision would be "a blow to passengers already blighted by slow, delayed and often cancelled services while improvements are carried out on the network. In among all this chaos, the furious Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has asked Sir Alistair Morton to explain what has gone wrong. Beginning of the end? In response, a livid Sir Alistair has decided to strip Railtrack of its responsibility for expanding the rail network after deciding that the company cannot stop costs spinning out of control. In ending Railtrack's monopoly, Sir Alistair asked: "If Railtrack is going to apply an air-pump to the estimates on every project, then how the hell do we plan a capital investment programme to give us a bigger and better railway?" "How can we rely totally on them?" Some may say that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, as the SRA has only just announced that its long-awaited strategic plan is to be delayed for a further six months. Even after what must be one of the worst weeks in Railtrack's history, Railtrack's share price closed down only 60 pence on the week at 949p, with City analysts suggesting that it is only surviving at its current level on the assumption that the Treasury will not abandon this lame duck and will always bail it out. The SRA had been due to feed 4.5 billion pounds of government grants to Railtrack over the next five years. But now, the company wants it all to handed over within the next three years, to ensure that it can perform basic maintenance and complete projects without being crippled by debt and losing its single A credit rating. Make Railtrack a public service It now seems clear that there can be no strategy for the renewal of the industry while the railway infrastructure remains so grossly mismanaged. Fragmentation of the industry and the substitution of the profit culture for the public-service ethos have done damage which cannot be reversed while the industry remained structured as it is. So why would bringing Railtrack into the public sector make any difference? In the first instance, a publicly owned Railtrack could really mean it when it said that safety comes first, as it would not have to prioritise shareholder interests. While British Rail undoubtedly had its shortcomings, arising out of pressures concerning finances, it generally had in place the best safety systems of the time. It also had a culture which gave safety the highest priority, over that of profit, operational expediency and contractual relationships. In his examination of the Southall train crash, Professor Uff reached the conclusion that the privatisation and fragmentation of the rail industry had considerably eroded that safety culture. After the Landbroke Grove disaster Gerald Corbett, the then chief executive of Railtrack, declared that the company would put safety first from then onward, implying that other considerations had previously come first. However, only a year later, the Hatfield disaster was to follow. Restoring Railtrack to public ownership would be a major step to ending the fragmentation and permanent upheaval which privatisation has meant and which looks likely to continue even under a fully fledged SRA. A publicly owned Railtrack should also take back direct responsibility for the maintenance and safety work currently sub and sub-sub contracted out — a system which has left no-one in charge and has led to a blame culture. Second, the government has promised 60 billion pounds to improve the national rail network over the next 10 years, a significant amount of it taxpayers' money. If this is to lead to safer, more reliable and faster journeys, someone must take charge of seeing that the money is spent sensibly. A publicly owned Railtrack, answerable to ministers and with a continuing independent role for the rail regulator, would give the railways the leadership and strategic direction that it needs. The taxpayer is already pouring billions of pounds into the rail industry through subsidies to private operators. Instead of placing shareholder interests at the top of the agenda, this money should be used for the greater public good. The taxpayer has every right to demand that its money be used for the legitimate purpose of improving services and safety. When, just a month after four people died in the Hatfield disaster, Railtrack announced that it was raising its half-year dividend to shareholders by five percent, it was not surprising that Railtrack became one of the most unpopular companies in the country. Public had enough Up until now, the public has quite rightly lain the blame for the chaos on the railways on privatisation and private companies. However, it is inevitable that, with time, the government will begin to look impotent in the face of such incompetence and mismanagement. It is a fact that the general public still regards the railways as a public service and therefore expects the government to play a leading role in their management. The public will increasingly be heard to ask: "Where is all the money going and what are we getting out of it?" The government cannot ignore this growing public feeling. From here on We now have a fantastic opportunity to capitalise on the huge amounts of public discontent with the railways, Railtrack, in particular, and the public's appetite for change. Take Back the Track is, therefore, following a twin approach to campaigning over the following months. First, the aim is to lift public campaigning and to focus on gaining as much support as possible especially among the labour movement, but also from different political parties, passenger groups and community representatives. Second, the campaign will target political opinion and policy makers. The centrepiece of the campaign is the Take Back the Track petition, which the unions intend to present to the Prime Minister in early April. Copies of the petition are being widely circulated, signatures collected at local railway stations, shopping centres and where ever people gather. The aim is to open up the debate about the structure, ownership and performance of Railtrack, to include the most obvious solution of all — restoring Railtrack to public ownership.