Political Commentary: Another fiasco is about to depart

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THE SCENE was a London railway station. A junior transport minister was due to meet his private secretary before they proceeded on a journey. The private secretary arrived at the barrier and, with his minister nowhere to be seen, insisted that the train's departure be halted. Ten minutes later, an irate minister stormed out of a first class compartment demanding to know why his train was delayed. Such organisational skills seem to have characterised the Department of Transport's activities of late.

For John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, 1993 begins badly. A Cabinet reshuffle, in which he might have realised his ambition to become Chancellor, has been postponed. The longer the delay in the Cabinet's musical chairs, the greater the chances of his rival, Kenneth Clarke, ending up in the Chancellor's seat. Mr Clarke's prospects in the summer - after the Maastricht Bill has been through the Commons - are far better than they are now, when his appointment would further provoke the Euro-sceptic right.

Mr MacGregor is left with the responsibility for bringing forward a delayed, and increasingly difficult, BR privatisation Bill. For this, he can expect minimum reward and maximum political odium.

The fate of the BR privatisation plans reveals much about the workings of the Major administration. In Whitehall, one of the chief criticisms of John Major is that, rather than being (as is usually claimed) a man without ideas, the Prime Minister highlights issues and initiatives but is unable to follow them through. One example is the Citizen's Charter, which trumpets worthy objectives of increasing openness, accountability and efficiency of government. The results have been disappointing to say the least. BR privatisation looks as if it will join the list of initiatives destined to be not quite what they once sounded.

As Lord Ridley, the driest of Thatcherites and former Secretary of State for Transport, pointed out in the Times again last week, BR was one of the privatisations which Lady Thatcher never contemplated. 'The truth,' wrote Lord Ridley, 'is that it is almost impossible to privatise an industry where losses are endemic and cannot first be substantially cut by good management.' Mr Major, perhaps because he wants to stress continuity with the free market ideology of his predecessor, perhaps because he genuinely believes it will improve lousy services, thinks differently.

In the run-up to the general election, he took a detailed interest in the privatisation, resisting plans from the then Secretary of State for Transport, Malcolm Rifkind, to sell the network sector by sector, keeping the then-profitable InterCity as a unit. Rail policy decisions were, as the platform announcements put it, subject to delay. Mr Rifkind was due to publish his proposals before Christmas 1991. They were then put back to January. In the end, we had to wait until March for the transport section of the Conservative Party manifesto. It spoke of franchising out services 'in such a way as to reflect regional and local identity' (Mr Major was thinking of the old Great Western Railway and its cream and chocolate livery) and of all companies having 'fair access to the track' controlled by a new authority. Only freight operations would be sold outright as a block. Now, we wait again.

The privatisation Bill, expected in November, is delayed, ostensibly because the paving legislation, involving coal as well as rail, was engulfed in the pits fiasco. The background music grows more ominous for Mr MacGregor. Robert Adley, Tory chairman of the Transport Select Committee, Lords Ridley and Whitelaw, Sir Bob Reid, the BR chairman who was appointed to take the network into the private sector - have all joined the critics of the privatisation plans. There are doubts about the willingness of companies to operate services and about the complexities of ticketing if dozens of different ones are involved. There are doubts, too, about the risks of lines closing and about the switch of freight from rail to road as industry worries about paying higher rates under privatisation. The central idea of privatisation is to get round Treasury restrictions on drawing private finance into the railways. But even this is in doubt because private operators with time-limited franchises will be wary of sinking much capital.

Nevertheless the chances are that a Bill will go through the Commons. Privatisation, or at least semi-privatisation, as Mr Major carefully put it in his New Year radio interview, will almost certainly happen. Competition, and open access to tracks, is another matter. As Lord Ridley points out, BR already competes, not against other train operators but against cars, buses, coaches and air services. The most likely outcome is that the Government will water down privatisation plans by sidelining the unworkable concept of providing open access to all lines.

None of this is a substitute for a policy that offers some idea of the railways' role in relation to other forms of transport. The Government has no such policy and the Department of Transport is unlikely to provide one. The low esteem in which the department is held in Whitehall is nothing new. Ministers dispatched there feel they are being shunted into the political sidings. Only two post-war politicians, Ernest Marples and Barbara Castle, have really distinguished themselves in the department and they left office in the 1960s. In 1978 Sir Richard (now Lord) Marsh observed that he was the 26th minister to hold that job in 50 years.

Mr Rifkind joked that, as the eighth Transport Secretary in a decade, he was rather like Larry Fortensky, Liz Taylor's latest bridegroom. Mr Rifkind's predecessors have impressed themselves on the public memory even less than Ms Taylor's ex-husbands. In 1979 the transport minister, Norman (now Sir Norman) Fowler, was not even a Cabinet member, the department having been submerged within the Department of the Environment under Harold Wilson.

Although he achieved Cabinet status in 1981, Mr Fowler stayed less than nine months before passing the baton to David Howell who, as a 'wet', enjoyed little influence before being purged in 1983. His successor, Tom King, stayed four months. The remaining roll call is not an inspiring one: John Moore (sacked from the Cabinet after a stint at health), Paul Channon (hounded out of office after a succession of travel disasters) and Cecil Parkinson (retired from the Government when Mrs Thatcher was ousted). Only Nicholas Ridley stayed for much more than a year.

In one respect the writing was on the wall when the Transport separated from Environment. Civil servants were asked which they wanted to work for; Environment was heavily over-subscribed. The new transport department at its Marsham Street headquarters developed a rigid, compartmentalised bureaucracy. The directorates, responsible for different sectors such as roads (traditionally the most powerful), rail, aviation and shipping, are separate empires, often on separate floors, with different interests and priorities. What they seem to have most in common is that they complain about underfunding (roads less than others).

A decade ago Mr Howell predicted a transport crisis by the end of the 1980s but he was unable to win the necessary investment. For millions of travellers the crisis has arrived. The odd railway franchise will make little difference to that.