Meltdown? It could get worse before it gets better

Rail analyst Christian Wolmar explains why there's no quick fix
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What a week for the railways. Amid all the chaos, the good news was that the regulator, Tom Winsor, has decided that Railtrack should spend almost £15bn on investment on the network in the five years from April 2001. And the much hated Connex had been thrown out of its Network South Central franchise in favour of Govia which is promising £1.5bn over the next 20 years.

What a week for the railways. Amid all the chaos, the good news was that the regulator, Tom Winsor, has decided that Railtrack should spend almost £15bn on investment on the network in the five years from April 2001. And the much hated Connex had been thrown out of its Network South Central franchise in favour of Govia which is promising £1.5bn over the next 20 years.

But that was all jam tomorrow for today's rail passengers as the system appears to be in meltdown as a result of the checks instituted following the Hatfield train crash. The worst incident was when the West Coast main line was suddenly closed with just a few hours' notice to check the tracks in a measure which Railtrack admitted later was a bit of a panicky overreaction.

Almost the whole system was affected. The trains out of King's Cross were still being diverted by the accident, but it was the speed restrictions at curves around the network which were causing delays.

Today, Clapham Junction, the world's busiest junction, is going to be closed for new rails to be installed. "Don't travel with us" was the word from South West Trains, hardly a welcome message for its shareholders.

So are the railways close to collapse? No, but they are under unprecedented strain, and the fragility of an under-invested system destabilised by privatisation and fragmentation was cruelly exposed. There are two main problems: one technical and one structural.

The technical dilemma is that Railtrack does not really understand what is happening to its rails. The type of cracking which led to the broken rail at Hatfield is not new, but the speed with which it resulted in a break was much greater than previous experience would suggest. It may be a result of more, heavier or faster trains, but until more is known Railtrack is taking no chances and this conservative approach is leading to the chaos on the network.

This sort of problem occurs in other transport industries. Fleets of planes have been called in to check a component and cars are regularly the subject of recalls, but railways, the oldest form of mass travel, are expected to have sorted out these kinds of difficulties.

But there is a wider structural issue too, which is why industry executives, regulatory and safety bodies and ministers have been in a series of almost permanent huddles over the past week. The Hatfield accident has focused attention on an inherent flaw within the structure of the railways which goes to the heart of the way that they were privatised, and which raises fundamental fears about the safety of the system.

The privatised structure designed by the Tories has at its heart a system of financial incentives to boost performance. The Hatfield accident has exposed the fact that safety was not one of the targets built into the complex financial matrix. Indeed, quite the opposite. The privatisation has meant that private companies, whose role is to maximise profits, have been given powerful financial incentives to boost punctuality and reliability which can translate into managers compromising safety. Moreover, they have had to cope with unprecedented growth which has strained an overstretched network. Therefore, even more than Ladbroke Grove and Southall, this accident has raised fundamental questions about Britain's unique rail privatisation.

The privatisation has also resulted in more public dissatisfaction. In the old days of British Rail, we would have accepted all this inconvenience with a shrug and a moan about rotten old BR. But the private companies which took over promised improvements. It didn't happen. And now it is being noticed that they never mentioned safety except as an afterthought.

The next few weeks are going to be tough. At the meeting on Friday, Tony Blair told Gerald Corbett, the chief executive of Railtrack, that he understood the problems but they had to be sorted out by Christmas to ensure that the railways were running smoothly by the time of a spring general election.

The guy who may face the roughest ride over the next few weeks is Mr Winsor. Hatfield demonstrated that there appears to be a trade-off between performance and safety and now Mr Winsor's regime is being questioned.

Ironically, the chaos is coming at just the time when things are starting to look up. But investment takes a long time to have an effect. Passengers in 10 years' time will benefit from the planned boost in spending, but that's not much consolation for the tens of thousands of people whose journeys will be wrecked today.

Comments