The train has already left

Rail privatisation is unpopular and unstoppable, argues Christian Wolmar; The Conservatives should not delude themselves that the sell-off will win them a single vote at the next election
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The Independent Online
OVER the past fortnight there has been a deluge of leaks concerning rail privatisation. All the leaks involve reports of inquiries into incidents where safety appears to have been compromised. The incidents themselves are relatively minor but in a hot summer with barely a cloud of political news on the horizon, they have attracted a breadth of coverage completely disproportionate to their significance.

If there were no plans to sell off the railways, these tales of miscellaneous mishaps on the rail network would not have merited a paragraph on page 11 of the Westmoreland Gazette, let alone lead story on the Nine O'Clock News. Indeed, if it were not for privatisation, they would not have been leaked at all, since the prime motive for sending out these anonymous packages to Labour politicians (and, cleverly, to the Tory Daily Mail) seems to be to scupper privatisation.

Doubts over rail privatisation have spread contagiously, and the stories touch a nerve. People are more than willing to believe that rail privatisation is bad for safety. In essence, the alleged lapses of safety are trivial - a bit of overhead cable torn down, a nuclear flask dropped slightly skew-whiff, and, most seriously, a signalling scheme gone awry - in which no one was injured, let alone killed.

Helped by Railtrack's blundering PR machine (its chief executive, John Edmonds, appears to believe that organisations get the press they deserve and, therefore, has yet to get round to replacing the chief public relations officer who left in July), the Labour Party has managed to make enormous capital out of these stories. And the contagious doubt over privatising the network spreads even further.

Railtrack could, for example, argue that the reports on which the leaks have been based are themselves testimony to the emphasis placed on safety within the rail system. Our roads would be a great deal safer if road safety officers were appointed to draw up lengthy reports on every fatal, or even injury-causing, road crash in their area, with recommendations on how to avoid further accidents. Rail, it must be stressed, is the safest form of land travel by a large margin.

But though the coverage may have been disproportionate, one consistent and very important theme emerges. The reorganisation of the railways into Railtrack, 25 train-operating companies, 13 track-renewal and maintenance companies, three rolling-stock companies, and a plethora of signalling, design and other units, has been carried out too hastily. Sir Bob Reid, past chairman of the British Rail board, repeatedly warned against this before his departure on 1 April this year. Having just recovered from one major reorganisation, British Rail desperately needed a period of administrative and managerial stability. Instead, the Government embarked on a privatisation plan unique in the world and so complicated that it would take a diagram the size of this page to explain the new structure in a coherent and readable way.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the managers writing these inquiry reports consistently refer to the failure of communication between the different players on the new railway. Contractors are not briefed properly, lines of management are not worked out, staff are not properly trained and new hierarchies have not been ascertained or understood. There are repeated references to past disasters such as Clapham and dire warnings - sometimes seemingly written with a wider audience in mind than the railway staff to whom they are addressed - of future disasters should the lessons not be learnt. While taken separately the incidents may be minor, but the broader message is that an accident is just waiting to happen. And if it does, what price privatisation?

In truth, there is little the Conservatives can now do to quell the widespread disbelief in their privatisation project. Every leaf on the line will be the Government's fault.

This has already happened with water. The years of incompetent management when water was supplied by publicly owned water boards and of government failure to inject sufficient funds have long been forgotten. Because the Conservatives have identified themselves so entirely with the mission to privatise, they must live by its achievements and failures. It is a little illogical for the Government to be blamed for the failure of private companies to deliver water and quite remarkable for it to be blamed for a drought, but that is what is happening.

And so it will be with the railways. The Government may well sell off part of the railways by the next election. (It will not, however, sell off more than 50 per cent of services by 1 April 1996, the ridiculous target it has set itself and which, inexplicably, ministers adhere to in the face of disbelief from everyone in the industry.) Most important, it is proceeding undeterred with the sell-off of Railtrack. But there is to be no "tell Sid" public campaign. Instead, the Government will just need to persuade a few institutions that Railtrack is a good investment and given that its income, in track charges, is virtually guaranteed, there is no doubt that the sale can be achieved, albeit at rather less than the pounds 3bn originally hoped for. But Labour should not delude itself that a few stories about safety will halt the progress. What these reports show, however, is that the sale will never be popular. It is two or three privatisations too far. The climate has changed.

There is a Machiavellian theory circulating in the railway industry. The Government is deliberately engineering the leaks, the theory goes, to pave the way for a retreat on privatisation. Don't believe it. The sell-off will go ahead whatever the consequences. Just like the poll tax, the process has become unstoppable. The Government has already spent something in the order of pounds 1bn. But the Tories should not delude themselves that this will win them a single vote at the next election, not least because hardly any of the train-operating companies will have been sold and passengers will see absolutely no improvement, except perhaps, for a few repainted carriages, by the time of the election. Indeed, it could cost them thousands of votes. Privatisation - rather than the railways themselves - will become the target for every commuter's complaint.