Christian Wolmar: Compromise that fails to confront desperate need for radical reform

Share
Related Topics

After all the kerfuffle, the rail review is a damp squib. Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, announced the review in January after he became exasperated at how the railways absorbed taxpayers' money while apparently unable to provide a decent service.

After all the kerfuffle, the rail review is a damp squib. Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, announced the review in January after he became exasperated at how the railways absorbed taxpayers' money while apparently unable to provide a decent service.

There was much talk of fundamental reform for a railway that Mr Darling had recognised as "dysfunctional". The key issue was integration. The biggest mistake of the Tories' privatisation was the separation of what was then Railtrack (now Network Rail) and the train operations. In private, ministers liked the idea of reintegrating them to form strong, local, unified companies.

Then it all got too difficult. Tom Winsor, the now-departed rail regulator, fulminated on the sidelines, saying the review was pointless and warning ministers not to tamper with contracts with the private companies or he would see them in court. The various vested interests in the railway argued their corner and ministers shied away from the radical reform that is so clearly needed.

Reintegration was seen as problematic, although many train operators favour the idea, because existing contracts would have had to be modified. Other radical ideas such as doing away with the performance regime - which employs more than 300 clerks to check who is responsible for delays - have also been quietly ditched.

So we have ended up with a compromise with all the hallmarks of being hastily put together. But there are sensible changes. The Strategic Rail Authority, created just four years ago by Labour, is to be abolished because, bizarrely, ministers now say it was the wrong sort of organisation which could never exercise the necessary authority since it was up to ministers to determine long-term rail strategy. One could ask why they created it in the first place?

Ministers will exercise more power over the industry, an good move, given that it is costing taxpayers £5bn a year. They say politicians will not run the railways directly but that will be a difficult promise to keep since they will be held responsible for things when they go wrong, making it difficult for them to keep their hands off.

Another sensible move is the decision to hand safety to the new Office of Rail Regulation, because spending decisions on safety have to be made within the context of what is affordable. Unions and victims' groups may not approve, but the railway is a very safe industry and spending on measures with little benefit has contributed to the soaring costs.

But all these are administrative changes aimed more at keeping costs under control than making the railway better for passengers. Ministers hope a slightly simplified structure will eventually improve punctuality and reliability, but it is a long haul and there are no short-term electoral gains which ministers hoped for when they announced the review.

Christian Wolmar is the author of 'The Subterranean Railway', to be published in November by Atlantic Books. www.christianwolmar.co.uk

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

CRM Data Analyst – Part time – Permanent – Surrey – Circa £28,000 pro rata

£15000 - £16800 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Mechanical Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A key client in the East Midlands are re...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobWe are looking ...

Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The Job...Due to continued ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice