Steve Richards: Mr Byers should be thanked for trying to save our railways

'Reforming the rail system may prove to be beyond Mr Byers. But he should not be sacked for daring to try'
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STEPHEN BYERS must have watched the downfall of Henry McLeish with a nervy unease. It was around a fortnight ago that the media and political opponents in Scotland started to call for Mr McLeish's resignation. The First Minister protested breezily at first, but was stuttering awkwardly by the end. The stories swamping Mr Byers appear to be much more damaging.

The headlines shriek that Mr Byers has misled Parliament, Railtrack, Railtrack's shareholders and the rail regulator. Compared with such allegations, Mr McLeish is a model politician. The First Minister's downfall relates to his complicated, but relatively trivial expenses' arrangements. Mr Byers' political crisis arises from incompetence on a grand scale.

Only the incompetence is less to do with Mr Byers than with his victim. The screaming headlines ignore the fact that the Secretary of State for Transport is finally taking on a privatised monopoly that was costing the taxpayer a fortune without delivering a decent service.

The chutzpah of Railtrack in the current row is especially breathtaking. The company's leading figures are showing a determined focus in their current fightback that they never displayed when they were shyly in charge the railways. On every media outlet, one of its representatives is suddenly available for comment. In a brilliant PR operation the company pleads that it was ready to complete nobly its task of reviving the railways. The opportunity to continue its good work was taken away by a recklessly ruthless minister who did not know what he was doing.

Before we start shedding too many tears we should remind ourselves that it is quite a novelty in itself to hear and see so much of Railtrack's main players. When it was running the railways, the company quite often refused to appear in the media. An item about the appalling state of the tracks would often end with a presenter stating, "We asked Railtrack to take part in the report, but no one was available." Now it is fighting for its life, rather than fighting for the railways, Railtrack is available to comment at 8.10am on the Today programme or at 3.00am on Radio Skegness. For the first time, it is willing to adopt a high media profile.

Yet its case is pathetically flimsy. It did not even handle its most recent cash crisis – the one that triggered Mr Byers' actions – with any competence. The words of the rail regulator, Roger Winsor, have been turned against Mr Byers and Railtrack is rubbing its hands with glee. This is perverse. The main thrust of Mr Winsor's argument is that Railtrack should have raised the cash crisis with him rather than with the Government. He said that the company had made a "big mistake" by going behind his back. He also added that Railtrack had made another huge error in failing to force the Strategic Rail Authority to stick to its agreement to set up a new company, Renewco, thereby enabling Railtrack to receive a £1.5bn cash advance.

This should be no great surprise. A company that failed to invest properly in the railways, over-reacted to the Hatfield crash by virtually closing down the network, failed to meet its own deadlines for a return to near normality (that is normality as defined by Railtrack, which means a Third World operation to the rest of us) could not even follow established procedures to obtain some additional cash.

The latest frenzy about Mr Byers arises from his apparent threat to prevent Mr Winsor from undertaking an interim review of Railtrack, and whether he misled the Commons on what he said about the regulator's independence. There is, in this dispute, a problem that goes to the heart of the way the Government runs some public services. Ministers give theoretical independence to regulators. In reality, that independence is entirely dependent on the Government. Ministers can reduce or increase the powers of the regulator through legislation. This is a very odd sort of independence. When life gets difficult, ministers can stand back and say, "This is nothing to do with me. It's up to the regulator." If life gets really difficult, and the Government is starting to get the blame, ministers can take powers from the regulator. In other words, the regulator is as independent as the Government wishes.

There is a moment for a good debate about this, but this is not the moment. The railways are in crisis. Each day travellers are enduring nightmarish journeys, arriving at work exhausted from the hellish farce of it all. Even now I do not believe that the Government, let alone Railtrack and the far from innocent operating companies, realise quite how dreadful it is out there.

At such a moment, with Railtrack pleading for more money, Mr Winsor was proposing another "interim review". Mr Byers was quite right to say that enough was enough. In a national emergency – which this matter is – you do not have a review to see whether the status quo can work after years in which the status quo has produced the emergency. It was time to act and Mr Byers acted. The shareholders are a side issue in the context of the collapse of the railways. An inept privatised monopoly was wrecking the railways. Something had to be done about it without costing taxpayers billions of pounds in compensation. The billions are needed to invest in the railways.

The other accusation against Mr Byers is that he should have given more notice of his intentions, as if he was announcing the sale of a second hand car. On a much smaller scale the dismantling of a massive privatised monopoly has echoes with the independence of the Bank of England. It is not the type of policy that can be signalled in advance.

At the same time, such a complicated measure cannot be prepared in a few hours. It is reassuring, rather than sinister, that Mr Byers was exploring his options before he announced his intentions. His plans for the future are still hazy. How much worse it would have been if he had said, "Railtrack has asked for more money. I have said no. I have not got a clue what to do next."

The more Railtrack rages with such uncharacteristic energy the safer Mr Byers becomes. Labour MPs may have doubts about the sure-footedness of Mr Byers. They have no doubts about what they think of Railtrack. If it is a case of Byers versus Railtrack, the minister will win with ease.

This is a much more one-sided battle than the one Mr McLeish fought with his own expenses. Mr Byers will be helped further by the fact that the Railtrack initiative will not have been his policy alone. Quite possibly it was not his policy at all. At the very least the Treasury would have been extensively consulted. For the time being Mr Byers is safe, and rightly so.

Reform of the railways may prove to be beyond the unproven talents of Mr Byers. That's a matter for the future. He should not be sacked for daring to try.