A journey through the great railway disaster; Battered old trains still take the strain while an ultra-modern coachworks faces closure. Christian Wolmar concludes his rail tour
As we rattle along from Carlisle to Newcastle in a spartan and rickety old diesel train, with an interior designed for commuters rather than a two-hour ride, it seems inexplicable that this is the first year in its 50-year history that BR has not ordered any new rolling stock.

After three days' travelling throughout the network, the state of the trains ranges from immaculate to dishevelled. The painting on the Conwy Valley line of a set of 40-year-old coaches in old British Railways livery must irk the local users. Many of the smaller lines have similar battered old diesel trains belching smoke as the drivers change gear with their clunky gearboxes. In August, on the Barrow-to-Carlisle line, the engine fell off one of these little one-coach trains. Much of the long- distance regional network, however, has sleek, air-conditioned numbers with computer-designed seats and lots of litter bins but no space for cyclists. The Carlisle-to-Newcastle line has not been so blessed. Although it does have a new station serving the enormous Metro Centre, today no one gets on or off there, which seems to show just how attached people are to their cars when it comes to shopping trips.

At Newcastle, I pick up the East Coast Main Line, the most modern of the main lines, refurbished in the early Nineties at a cost of just under pounds 1bn. Its stark contrast to the West Coast has raised suspicions that the Government would be happy to see just one major line linking London with Scotland, leaving the West Coast to serve the Midlands and North- west.

The train starts off from Newcastle a few minutes late, but by the time we reach York it has caught up with the timetable. BR deliberately schedules its trains in this way. It has a real timetable, called the working timetable, which shows when trains are really supposed to reach their destinations, and there is strong evidence that the difference between the two timetables has been increasing over the years to allow BR to meet its Passengers' Charter targets.

The lack of new rolling stock orders is particularly painful for the 400 remaining workers at what used to be BR's enormous York coachworks. It was privatised in 1989 to a consortium including Trafalgar House and ABB, the Swiss-Swedish company, and the latter took full control a couple of years later. Now, after investing pounds 50m in the works over the past three years, the company is having to shut the site down because of a lack of orders.

Philip Smeeton, ABB's sales manager, accuses the Government of blatant dishonesty: "British Rail, with the backing of the Government, encouraged us to invest in this site. They implied that there was not enough capacity in the country for the number of new trains that would be needed." The company's York works started out building the new Networker trains that were intended to replace the old slam-door stock in the London suburban network.

But with the advent of rail privatisation, the orders began to dry up. BR was too uncertain over its future to think long-term. Mr Smeeton cannot hide his anger: "They made us upgrade the factory and then pulled the plug. It's such a waste." Indeed, the factory is everything a modern manufacturing plant should be. It is clean, airy, and light, and clearly productivity is high as the few workers move purposefully among the gleaming new equipment. At the end of the year though, much of this will be just scrap when the last of the current order of 41 four-car train sets is completed.

There used to be a workforce of 3,000, but by this spring, when the closure announcement was made, that had been reduced to 750. "We're the elite," a man in his late twenties who has worked there since his teens says gamely, "and they are just chucking us out."

There is particular bitterness about how the closure was brought about. An order for about 40 four-car trains had been put out by the Government to replace the 40-year old stock on the Kent Coast line. BR initially said there was no "business case" for the trains, but eventually two companies, including ABB, were asked to bid under the Government's Private Finance Initiative. In other words, they wanted the private sector to take all the risk of the project. Mr Smeeton explains: "Nowadays, they want rolling stock suppliers to guarantee a certain number of trains being available, which means we are responsible for maintenance and repairs. That's fine, but they also wanted us to bear the risk if the train company no longer wanted the trains after its franchise ended. That was too big a gamble."

Indeed, the Government has created three rolling stock companies which now own all the passenger trains on the network. Each has given four- or eight-year leases to the train operating companies. The first will expire in 1999 and Mr Smeeton and his colleagues suspect there will be no new orders until then.

What particularly galls Mr Smeeton is that British Rail blamed government ministers for the fiasco, and they in turn blamed BR. He has no doubts who is responsible: "The Government could have given the go-ahead, but it refused to do so." As a result, 750 people will find themselves out of work and a new factory mothballed, probably with no hope of being reopened.

I return to York station to travel to London on another of the comfortable East Coast trains. We arrive at King's Cross exactly on time - as had all the other trains I had taken over the past three days.

Trains are the most civilised and pleasant method of travel, particularly on a small, overcrowded island like ours. Where investment has been made or fares reduced, passengers have been attracted back to the system. Of course, some private-sector initiatives will help, but the chosen method of privatisation, in which every penny is accounted for several times over by an army of bureaucrats and where the charges levied for use of the track have been inflated to levels that make it too expensive to lay on extra trains, has found no advocates outside the ranks of the Government and its civil servants. There is so much that is good in the system, and much of it is threatened by privatisation. The workforce is already demoralised, passengers are suspicious and, despite my experience, punctuality and reliability have fallen. Undoubtedly, the railways needed a bit of tinkering with and a lot of investment. Instead, they got a revolution that no one seems to want.

Comments