Some years ago Christian Wolmar became a semi-permanent fixture in the news rooms, and I was curious to know what he did in-between railway accidents. The answer, it seems, is to write about them.
His book Broken Rails was published in 2001 and this is an updated and expanded version. Wolmar begins with a potted history of the railways, and highlights that they have always been a financially precarious operation. Nevertheless, he argues that after many decades of public ownership (which was not initially a great success; the modernisation plan and investment of the 1950s was followed by the road-favouring Ernest Marples and the Beeching era, though the Bletchley Flyover may yet live another day), British Rail had become quite an efficient operator, though he conceeds it was rarely perceived as such.
Even Thatcher, Wolmar argues, dared not privatise the industry. But enter John Major (cue visions of village cricket and steam trains) and the surprise 1992 election victory, and privatisation was on the agenda. The internal opposition within British Rail was so ubiquitous it became counter-productive, as ministers and civil servants came to ignore advice almost on principle. Initially the City wasn't interested, and the various fragmented entities were fattened up considerably for sale. Railtrack shed most of its engineering talent, outsourcing track maintenance; the train operating companies didn't actually have any assets, as they leased rolling stock from other privatised companies.
Whilst the initial criticism is of the Tory ideology, Wolmar is just as scathing of New Labour. Blair promised a "publically accountable, publically owned" railway, but, having committed to Tory spending plans and neurotic about pandering to business interests, there was no money or will to renationalise. Then came a series of accidents which Wolmar considers in detail: Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar. In each case he convincingly argues that there are direct causal links from the privatisation arrangements to these accidents, leading either from the break-up of one co-operative structure into fragmented, contractually-bound parties, or from the asset-stripping and outsourcing of maintenance with little or no safety inspection and auditing.
The accident at Hatfield in particular had a catastrophic impact on the whole network, and sunk Railtrack, which had been an incredibly profitable company (ahem, perhaps because it hadn't been spending enough money on track inspection and maintenance). Wolmar argues that whilst a correction was needed, the cultural change this brought about in the litigious private sector highlighted the financial flaw in privatisation, which was that when safety became paramount, the Treasury suddenly had no option but to pour vast somes of money into the railway. In other words, any profits could be taken by the private sector, but the risk remained in the public sector. The Treasury, which had been keen to get BR off its balance sheet, now pours 5-7 times as much money (taking account of inflation) into the railways as it did when it was a nationalised industry. It would be funny to read the storms over these sums of money, which now seem trivial compared to the bank bail-outs (the book dates from 2005/6), if it weren't that we'll all be paying for all of this for the foreseeable future.
Wolmar writes with passion and anger, but always with reason, and he concludes that the only realistic option to control costs is to renationalise the railway. With Network Rail, this has effectively already been done for the track; his recommended course of action is to allow franchises to lapse and be brought gradually back to the public sector.