The Cullen Report

The nation's trainset: several careless owners, in need of a good home

The Ladbroke Grove inquiry's conclusion was damning: our railways are in a mess. Then there are the strikes and financial black holes. The solution lies with the operating companies, says Christian Wolmar

In two weeks' time, Virgin launches its revolutionary Pendolino tilting electric train which will eventually cut journey times dramatically on its routes between London and Scotland and the North West. There will be the usual Richard Branson pizzazz and celebrations, but the train, built by Alstom with a tilt mechanism by Fiat, will only come into service early next year.

There are other new trains and services, too, on the network. The innovations might suggest that privatisation, which overturned 170 years of railway tradition by separating the operation of services from the track and infrastructure to create Railtrack, has been a great success.

The public knows better. As far as many are concerned, the picture on the railways is one of gloom. The downsides of privatisation are all too familiar: accidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield; speed restrictions after Hatfield, which almost brought the network to a halt last October and still cause delays; a spectacular cost over-run on the West Coast Main Line project from £2.4bn to over £7bn and rising; the virtual bankruptcy of Railtrack and its constant requests for more taxpayers' money; overcrowding on the major commuter routes; and the failure of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) to be strategic or authoritative, as it has dithered over refranchising, failing to get even one deal signed 18 months after the start of the process.

Last week's publication of the Cullen inquiry report into the Ladbroke Grove disaster, which killed 31 people, highlighted basic incompetence at both Railtrack and Thames Trains. Even the industrial relations problems that dogged British Rail seem to have returned. Tomorrow, at least five train companies expect to have their services disrupted by strikes over the role of train guards.

So what has gone wrong and can it be fixed? The railways will be the first big headache for Stephen Byers, the new transport secretary. He is faced with big decisions over whether to bail out Railtrack and muddle through with the existing structure. Almost his first act on taking office was to commission a report into the state of the railways and, in particular, the future of Railtrack.

A bit of history should be helpful to him. Conventional wisdom puts the blame for the state of the railways on years of underinvestment under BR, but BR got many things right in the years before it was dismantled. The InterCity network was profitable. The concept of total route modernisation used on the Chiltern line, which involved refurbishing the stations and track as well as providing new rolling stock, had succeeded in attracting new customers. Hundreds of new trains were on order, and major work was being carried out to allow Channel Tunnel trains to travel around the network. Certainly, there were years of underinvestment to redress. But BR was not the basket case portrayed by those seeking to privatise the railways. It was a viable nationalised industry which could have been more efficient but needed only a bit of gentle tinkering rather than the revolution that tore it to shreds.

The drive to privatise came from the Treasury, whose privatisation unit had run out of things to do. Determined not to repeat what they thought of as the main failure of previous privatisations ­ a lack of competition in the resulting structure ­ Treasury mandarins persuaded ministers to break BR into 100 constituent parts, including 25 trains operators, 13 engineering companies and three rolling-stock leasing firms. The `fanciful idea was that having so many operators would ensure that there would be competition. With a few exceptions, the concept was quickly shelved because it was unworkable. At the centre was the worst monopoly of all, Railtrack, which was fattened up with profitable contracts and then floated on the Stock Exchange.

There were two big flaws with this structure. First, Railtrack should never have been privatised as a conventional profit-maximising company. Even at the best of times, half its income came from taxpayers; over the next five years, the proportion will be around three-quarters. The second mistake was to separate the provision of track and infrastructure from the running of services. This structure, designed by people whose only experience of running trains was a Hornby Dublo trainset, is held together by legal contracts rather than by the ethos of co-ordination and integration that used to be the hallmark of the railway.

It does not work. The Cullen report into Ladbroke Grove showed that, though the problems with signal SN109 had been known about, trainee drivers were not warned about the dangers, nor were they given proper instructions about the particular risks of the Paddington area, where a staggering 67 signals had been passed at danger in the previous six years.

It was, however, the Hatfield crash last October, in which four died, that highlighted the faults in the system. There had been concern about that section of track for nearly two years but no repair work had been done. The work that would have prevented the accident was due to take place one month after it.

At privatisation, Railtrack had been forced to contract out all its maintenance and renewal work to contractors working on a fixed-price basis, which gave them no incentive to do anything but the bare minimum. Hatfield not only exposed the problems with this system but also Railtrack's lack of engineering expertise. The panic reaction in the company, which led to the imposition of 1,300 temporary speed restrictions, demonstrated that it did not have enough experienced engineers to assess the track's condition. But it also showed that Railtrack's senior executives, only one of whom has railway experience, lacked the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions on safety. In the event, no section of track as bad as the one at Hatfield has been found, and virtually everyone in the industry feels Railtrack over-reacted.

The episode has wrecked the industry's already shaky finances. The Government's plans for the private sector to invest £34bn in the next decade are in tatters and Sir Alastair Morton, the chairman of the SRA, has talked of a "black hole" in the middle of the network. Byers faces a stark choice over Railtrack. He could take the advice of some of his senior civil servants, including the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, who counsel that he should do nothing to the structure of the railways, but merely bail out Railtrack with extra cash. Or he could act. The big train operators ­ notably National Express, with nine of the 25 franchises, and Virgin ­ are pushing for control of the track so that they can operate as reintegrated railways. If the major operators all took on chunks of track, with some redrawing of boundaries, Railtrack's principal function, and the question of renationalisation, would go.

Railtrack will not take kindly to being reduced to a mere property company, and companies such as Thameslink and Gatwick Express, which have no obvious territory, will not like having to buy their access paths from other operators. However, compared with the present situation, such a restructuring makes sense. Whether Byers and the Government are brave enough to contemplate change is an open question. Another Ladbroke Grove or Hatfield, and their hand may be forced.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention