Today our chronicle of the absurdities of rail privatisation ends.

When the "Mad" railway column started, rail privatisation was in danger of foundering. Two years of effort had produced little to boast about. Nothing had been sold or privatised; British Rail, under the chairmanship of Sir Bob Reid, was being intransigent and the process was a year behind schedule. Ministers began to waver. There were crisis meetings and the voices of dissent became more confident. But, the Government realised, a U-turn with the legislation already in place would have been too embarrassing.

Now, they are chirping. Eighteen out of the 25 train franchises have been let, and the remainder are likely to go by March, which means that an incoming Labour government will not be able to do anything about the structure of the railways. Railtrack has been sold, and so have most of the 70 or so other bits of British Rail, which has effectively been irreparably dismembered.

There has been a series of press releases and ministerial press conferences celebrating these achievements over the past few weeks. Figures released a few weeks ago by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf) showed that the first eight franchised companies had all either maintained or improved on their previous level of punctuality and reliability.

Opraf also published a list of the achievements of the franchisees that have taken over rail services in the past 10 months. There are new coach links by both Great North Eastern Railway and South West Trains. Midland Main Line provided free tea and coffee, while London, Tilbury and Southend is running additional late evening trains. And Chiltern has ordered four new sets of trains.

Meanwhile, shares are booming. Prism Rail, which won four franchises, has seen its share price soar to more than four times the original value, while Railtrack's is also at an all-time high, almost double the original price.

Railtrack is ebullient about its performance, too, boasting that delays for which it is responsible are down by 30 per cent on last year's figures. Consequently, it expects to make pounds 58m during the current year from bonuses for good performance and from fines paid by train operators for their delays - much more than expected.

Earlier this month, the rail watchdog, the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee, also chimed in. It announced that complaints had gone down by 30 per cent this summer, compared with last year. In particular, there were fewer moans about punctuality, overcrowding and cancellations, although complaints about the telephone enquiry bureau service, which has just been reorganised, had gone up by a third.

There are, too, promises of better things to come - new train sets, new stations, even some new services, are all supposed to be on the way. Ministers never cease to tell us what exciting news all this is. Every new franchise is introduced by a politician with the homily, "This is good news for the passenger, and good news for the taxpayer."

Not everyone is convinced. Out on the privatised platforms there is a different perception of what is happening on the railways. The "Mad" column has by its nature been a repository of complaints rather than plaudits, but the strength of feeling in the 1,500 or so letters it has received over the past two years is remarkable. And each of the tales we have told has been backed by the experience of many other rail travellers who have talked to the Independent on Sunday during that time.

The stories have been the real, and sometimes surreal, problems of ordinary people with the humble desire to make unexceptional railway journeys, frustrated in this modest ambition as a result of privatisation and the commercialisation that preceded it. They are about the difficulties of getting information or of making connections; the problems of making journeys involving more than one company; the problems that arise because the network can no longer cope with sudden surges of demand; the difficulties of validity of tickets, and so on and so on.

Of all these letters, the one that best characterises the anger felt by users about the break-up of the rail network, was the subject of last week's column, No 100. It was written by David Trevor-Jones, a consultant who runs a business and who is so keen on railways that he makes his staff travel by train whenever possible. Mr Trevor-Jones was turfed off a train because he had the "wrong" ticket: trying to travel to London from Bristol he had got on a Paddington rather than a Waterloo train. He raged: "I am a dedicated rail user. I highlight use of public transport in my environmental policy which I send to all clients. I am the sort of traveller you [the railways] have as a gift. I use the railways out of conviction and by preference. If you have managed to turn me into a furious critic seriously considering using the M4 next time, what hope is there for the more rail- sceptical travelling public?"

So how do we reconcile the views of these "Mad" correspondents, such as Mr Trevor-Jones, and the stream of news about an "improving" railway? Some of the propaganda can be dismissed. Last week, the Daily Mail trumpeted, under the banner headline "pounds 6bn Supersaver", that "privatised railways will save taxpayers at least pounds 6bn over the next 15 years".

This was extremely dishonest. First, it was based on the premise that British Rail would have made no productivity savings over the next 15 years, which is nonsense. In the 30 years between 1963 and 1993, railway staff were reduced from 350,000 to 120,000. The number of passengers and services remained the same, while the number of carriages was reduced by two-thirds. In the last year before restructuring of the railways in 1994, BR productivity rose by 6 per cent and subsidy was cut by 20 per cent.

Second, because of rail privatisation and the need to ensure that the privatised companies, notably Railtrack and the three rolling stock leasing firms, made a profit, the amount of subsidy going into the system was increased from pounds 1.1bn to pounds 1.8bn, and will remain high for the early years of privatisation.

Third, Railtrack is having to reduce its charges to train operators each year, so the amount of subsidy going to the operators is bound to go down too.

But some of the claims of improvements are true. While the odd cup of free tea is neither here nor there, the reduction in delays and the consequent reduction in complaints is impressive. The fact is that both the complainants and the supporters of privatisation are right.

In broad terms, services probably are getting better - from a low base because of the loss of morale as a result of the upheavals caused by rail privatisation - and productivity is increasing. The standard simple journey between two stations where the big flows of passengers take place may well get easier. But for those using the fiddly bits of the network, or the passengers who need help from platform staff or who want information beyond the simple level of "where is that train going?", things are likely to deteriorate. Profit, rather than service, is the motive and the new private companies will necessarily concentrate on their core markets and will seek to reduce costs at all times.

And the basic premise of "True Stories from the Great Railway Disaster" is still true. Privatisation was so driven by dogma, politics and the desire to reduce subsidy that consideration for passengers was forgotten. A director of one franchisee admitted as much privately: "There's a lot wrong with the system because it was done in such a hurry and it was all so political."

Privatisation could have been carried out in a more passenger-friendly, less doctrinaire way; now, unfortunately, much of the "madness" is entrenched. The new structure was created on the myth that competition between 25 rail companies was a good idea. It is an inherent part of the ideology that governs the network and will mean that passengers continue to miss connections because connecting trains are run by different companies, or be thrown off trains because they have a ticket sold by the wrong company.

Over the past two years, we have pointed out these anomalies and have even influenced the debate: the Rail Regulator, John Swift, said recently about the column that "operators should listen to the criticisms and react positively". Even major players in the industry who have publicly expressed anger at our exposure of the failings of privatisation have in private agreed that the flaws it exposed were fundamental to the new system. It is, though, time for "True Stories from the Great Railway Disaster" to wind up. We have had our say, and by making it clear that we offered a public forum for exposing the idiocies of the early days of privatisation, we may even hope that we have had an effect. As the system beds down, some of the problems are being and will be addressed. Staff may learn to be more co-operative. Railtrack, which is universally disliked by other players in the industry, may become more accommodating; maybe it will even stop charging for meetings with those freight operators wanting to become customers.

And a new Labour government may be able to address some of the problems. It has been left precious little room for manoeuvre: the contracts have been set in stone for at least the next five years, and in some cases until 2011. Michael Howell, Railtrack's commercial director, boasts to others in the industry that his company is "fireproof" and that nothing Labour does can affect its profitability.

Andrew Smith, Labour's transport spokesman, has an unenviable task. With no funds, nor any realistic commitment by his party to renationalising Railtrack, he will have to work within the existing privatised structure. For the next decade, Labour will blame the Tories for the parlous state of the railways. Indeed, since the railways are modelled on a Tory pattern, and any success will reflect well on the Conservatives, Labour in government may be tempted to pay little attention to the railways, and even try to undermine any success.

That would be a tragic mistake. There are some things Labour could do. It could ensure that the reductions in subsidy paid to the privatised companies are recycled to the railway rather than snaffled up by the Chancellor. It could also ensure, as promised, the tightening of the regulatory regime so that the private companies stick to their promises, and that Mr Howell of Railtrack is proved wrong about the party's impotence. And it could stop being nostalgic about the notion of reviving British Rail, by simply abolishing what is left, and creating a new strategic rail authority that will develop new ideas for a 21st-century railway. At least then, something promising will have emerged from the madness.

Test your knowledge...

1 What's the train (right) doing on the motorway?

2 Why is it a long walk to take a taxi at Cambridge station?

3 Railworkers put out a fire at Beckenham Junction with mud in March 1985. Why didn't they use the fire extinguisher?

4 People woken in the night by trains trundling through Bexhill station blame rail privatisation. Are they right?

5 You find you're on the slow train from London to Birmingham instead of the InterCity. Why?

6 Where were schoolchildren fleeced?

7 Why can you have ice in your gin from Portsmouth to Waterloo but not on the way back?

8 How do you get from Newhaven Harbour to Southease two stops down the line?

9 Why is the connecting train always just pulling out of the platform as you run up to it?

10 Why are there never any trains on Platform 4 at Southport station?

11 Why is the view of the scenic Tarka line in Devon obscured by dirt?

12 Can you still get your umbrella back if you leave it on a train?

13 Why are rabbits the only occupants of Kidlington station near Oxford?

14 Why were children upset about privatisation?

15 So rail privatisation is a load of old rubbish?

Answers

1 High track charges levied by Railtrack mean it's cheaper to send broken-down rail vehicles by road than by rail.

2 Because taxis were being charged to wait outside the station and the drivers refused to pay the fee.

3 The fire extinguisher belonged to South Eastern trains, and they worked for Railtrack. A notice at the station warned staff that using fire extinguishers on Railtrack equipment could result in "disciplinary action".

4 Er, yes. Trains used to be housed overnight at St Leonards in Hastings, but now trains terminating in Hastings have to go back through Bexhill to Eastbourne because the depot in Hastings belongs to a different company.

5 Both slow and fast trains at Euston are now shown as going to Birmingham. Previously, the slow trains were indicated as just going to Milton Keynes, but this breached competition rules.

6 Train managers on the Exmouth to Paignton line increased fares for a weekly season ticket for schoolchildren from Teignmouth to Torre from pounds 6 35 to pounds 9 90 because too many children were using the trains.

7 Because if the train runs out of ice it can't restock at Waterloo. The catering company is a rival firm.

8 You walk or drive. Trains that stop at Newhaven Harbour do not stop at Southease and vice versa.

9 Railtrack charges operating companies for being late so trains are no longer held for connections.

10 Because it has been allocated to Merseyrail which runs only electric trains, but the track is not electrified.

11 Because the coaches used on the line can be cleaned only at the company's far-distant Cardiff depot.

12 Just about, but one reader found that it had to be sent back using Red Star at a charge of pounds 22.

13 The cost of building a station doubled after Railtrack took over and the scheme had to be postponed.

14 Newly created freight companies charged toy companies for use of their logos on toy trains.

15 There have been many complaints about rubbish. Michael Howell, Railtrack's commercial director, says: "There is no added value in picking up a paper bag off the track in the station. A paper bag does not slow down trains."

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