Lawyers now standing at platform two...

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The Independent Online
THE POTTIEST aspect of rail privatisation was, thank goodness, shunted to the sidings last week, when John Swift, the rail regulator, shelved plans to limit the sale of through tickets to a few hundred "core" stations. Instead, in the brave new world of the privatised railways, passengers will still be able to buy tickets to anywhere on the network from all 1,300 manned stations.

That Mr Swift could even consider such a nutty idea makes you wonder about the rest of his plans for the railways. The common suspicion remains that the sell-off is the product of of a few right- wing ideologues, egged on by well-rewarded advisers.

One such adviser is SG Warburg, the bank advising the Government on the sale of Railtrack, the company that owns, manages and maintains the entire rail infrastructure - from signals to depots. Warburg is obviously keen to contradict the gloomsters. Last week, it published a weighty tome brimming with optimism about the prospects.

Warburg's vision is a million miles from the cattle-truck reality of so much present-day rail travel. Out goes the centrally planned command structure of the old BR. In come private-sector disciplines which, says Warburg, will improve quality and efficiency and create a climate of opportunity, investment and innovation. Employees and managers will no longer be able to pass the buck or fudge decisions. Performance targets will be set down in contracts, and penalties exacted if they are not met. New investment will be dictated by customer need, not the whim of Treasury officials.

I wish I could share all Warburg's optimism. Opponents of privatisation have worried that branch lines will be closed and safety compromised. These are legitimate worries and have been well aired. But no one has paid much attention to another danger - the mountain of contracts and agreements piling up as the 60 organisations that used to constitute BR are given separate identities.

Railtrack is now drawing up access contracts with the 25 TOCs - or train operating companies. These agreements allow the TOCs to use the rail network and stations. Next Railtrack has to negotiate contracts with the 13 BRIS's - BR infrastructure service companies. (Be warned: rail privatisation is acronym city).

Meanwhile the three ROSCOs - rolling stock companies - have to sign contracts with the TOCs, and the maintenance companies are bidding for contracts from the ROSCOs. Needless to say, there's barely a firm of solicitors not working for someone in the sell-off.

The theory is that these contracts will provide a legal framework to ensure quality standards. In practice, there is the grim possibility that every incident of leaves on the line, or engine failure, or electric fault, unleashes a tidal wave of claim and counter-claim. It could be heaven for the lawyers, and hell for passengers.

The Government's attempts to introduce the disciplines of the marketplace into the health service have backfired horribly, creating a burgeoning class of administrators. The danger is that rail privatisation will create another bureaucratic nightmare. You don't yet have to wait as long for a train as a hip op, but the auguries are not encouraging.

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