Unreliable signals on BR sell-off prospects: As MPs prepare to debate railway privatisation, Christian Wolmar looks at the investment needs of one line which may be in a 'shadow franchise'

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IT IS NOT a source of pride for the local railway managers that the 1930s signal box at Woking is a listed building. The curved brickwork straight out of Poirot is complemented inside by similar Thirties features, a long brass console with 131 long-handled switches that operate the signals and the points on a six-mile section of track which includes one of Network SouthEast's busiest junctions outside London.

The console is destined for the York Railway Museum - the sooner the better, according to Roger Penny, the engineer in charge of the signalling on Network SouthEast's south-west division. He said that unless it was replaced by the end of 1996, he would have to advise the British Rail Board - or probably, by then, the rail regulator - that it would no longer be safe to run trains through the junctions controlled by the box.

He is hoping it never comes to that. But the crunch is coming even sooner on another part of his patch. Today a sub-committee of the board will consider Mr Penny's request for pounds 18m for resignalling a section of track between Basingstoke and Eastleigh on the Southampton line, which he says will no longer be safe by the end of 1995.

'The decision has to be made now because there is a long lead time in such investment. There has to be the time for the system to be designed and installed.' Mr Penny is confident that he will get the money, but the fate of the rest of the division's modernisation programmes remains unclear.

All signalling equipment is designed to ensure it becomes unreliable before it becomes unsafe, turning the signals to red to ensure only disruption, rather than a disaster, is caused. Such failures are becoming increasingly frequent on the parts of the south- western division, where the signalling has not been upgraded.

Graham Wheeler, one of the signalmen on duty at Woking yesterday, said: 'We get about three or four failures every week.'

According to Peter Field, the director of the south-west division, the box's signal relays, protected in glass and black-painted steel boxes the size of car batteries, should have been replaced at least 10 years ago. The 30ft room in which they are housed could, he reckons, be replaced by a box the size of a filing cabinet drawer.

The worst problems, however, are in the room next door where a pile of old wiring lies on top of a cabinet full of circuitry: 'We don't dare touch it,' Mr Penny said. 'It might crumble. If something goes wrong we will try to make a circuit around it, rather than repairing it.'

After the Clapham Junction disaster in December 1988, the south-west division drew up a 15- year plan for resignalling which would cost pounds 500m. Currently, the division receives about pounds 10m each year for signalling investment, depending on its needs. The plan would push that up to about pounds 30m to pounds 40m.

Mr Field is hoping that the whole south-west division will be one of the 'shadow franchises' to be announced by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, during the Second Reading debate of the Railways Bill today. With his senior managers and a private sector backer, Mr Field hopes to put in a bid to run the franchise when the privatisation process starts in earnest, probably not until April 1995. The business has a pounds 240m turnover and 7,500 staff.

However, far from getting the Government off the investment hook, privatisation may well get it further embroiled. Mr Field said that the pounds 500m by the middle of the next decade was not optional: 'It is essential to continue running the railway.'

The problem for the Government is that any private firm coming on to the network to operate trains will need to have a commitment that the investment will be forthcoming. Without such assurances the sell-off will never happen. As Mr Field said, the money is unlikely to come from the private sector. 'Although investment on railways is supposed to have an 8 per cent return, with signalling that's impossible. The only return is that, if it doesn't happen, we won't have a railway.'

(Photograph omitted)