Railways: An industry in crisis hurtling down the wrong track

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The Independent Online

Momentous is an overused word, but it accurately describes the 12 months that Britain's railways have lived through. The year began in chaos following the Hatfield disaster, and it ends with the network arguably in deeper crisis still, following Stephen Byers's decision to force Railtrack into administration.

A policy that should have commanded overwhelming political and popular support has blown up in the Secretary of State for Transport's face in the most spectacular way, placing a large question mark over his future in the Cabinet.

It is, of course, not only the rail fiasco that has left Mr Byers's job on the line. There is also the small matter of the e-mail sent out on 11 September by his special adviser Jo Moore, trawling for bad news to "bury" under cover of the attack on the twin towers. Mr Byers's subsequent decision to pull the plug on Railtrack on a Sunday night in early October, just as the bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, was widely seen as another example of his spin doctor employing her black arts.

If the railways were in a mess before Railtrack went under, they are in a worse state now. Before the administrators went in, the network was showing tentative signs of recovering from the collective breakdown it experienced in the wake of Hatfield, which, at its worst, resulted in 1,200 temporary speed restrictions being imposed. In the three months since, the performance of the network has declined markedly, with delays attributable to Railtrack up by some 45 per cent, Railtrack warning that it faced penalty payments of £350m, and the administrators asking for £3bn to keep the network going until next April.

The chaos on the network was mirrored by an upheaval among the men who regulate the industry. Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, was told that there may not be any room in the new set-up for him, and then Sir Alastair Morton, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, quit early, lambasting Mr Byers for his lack of vision and funding for the railways.

Richard Bowker, former chairman of Virgin Trains, was appointed in his place and quickly made his mark by announcing plans to halve the number of rail franchises from 25 to around a dozen, and by describing the way the railway operates as "bonkers". In an industry where harmony is not much in evidence, that at least was something everyone could agree on.