The Guardian March 21, 2001


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.

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