Rail Policy

January 2004 – article by Gavin Strang for Campaign Group News

The review of our railways announced by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling last month is welcome. If passengers are to see the improvements that they rightly expect, Ministers must be prepared to be bold and to take fully on board the extent to which the present structure has been discredited.

Our railways have seen a tumultuous decade. Many thought that when John Major took over, rail privatisation – ‘the poll tax on wheels’ as the late Conservative MP Robert Adley christened it – would be ditched. But as a sop to his right wing, John Major proceeded with the sell off. On April Fool’s day 1994, the fragmentation of British Rail began, and by the time of the General Election in 1997, our rail industry had been shattered into over one hundred parts.

Rail privatisation being largely complete, Labour’s 1997 General Election manifesto committed the incoming government not to renationalisation but to endeavouring to make the privatised railways work – ‘to improve the situation as we find it, not as we wish it to be’ – by way of regulatory reforms and a new strategic rail authority.

The news about our railways in the subsequent years is not all bad. Billions of pounds are going into the rail industry every year – total investment in the railways has trebled since the days of the last Tory Government, and the taxpayer is providing £33bn over 10 years. For rail passengers there are 1,500 more services every weekday than in 1997 – and for domestic freight operators, grants were more than trebled.

But there are serious problems on our railways that need to be resolved urgently. The rail infrastructure was poorly managed, maintained and funded by Railtrack. Unit costs soared, leaving poor value for passengers’ and taxpayers’ money. The Hatfield accident in 2000 showed the bad condition of much of our rail infrastructure, and the Rail Regulator has recently announced that it will take until 2008-9 before we see rail service standards back at pre-Hatfield levels.

I have long been of the view that the optimum structure would be an entirely re-integrated rail network, with track and train under the same management. There now appears to be a growing number of commentators who have concluded that decisions about the track should be taken by the people who are responsible for the train services that run on it. As an aside, I have also made clear my view that the railway would be best held in public ownership – however, this policy option has been ruled out in the current review.

There would be a strong case for reflecting the reintegration of our railways at government level – bringing the responsibilities of the Strategic Rail Authority back into the Department for Transport. Of course, there is no question of Ministers running the railways – that did not happen with British Rail – but policy and overall investment should be properly accountable to Ministers and thus to Parliament.

Nowhere is the argument for the re-unification of the railway stronger than in the field of safety. I believe that in the long term a unified structure would be best placed to uphold and improve safety standards on the railways – it has to be preferable from a safety standpoint for the same organisation to be running the trains as is running the signalling and maintaining the track.

Alistair Darling’s review will include the regulation of safety regulation, and there has been speculation that the Government will advocate merging safety with other regulatory responsibilities – for example, passing the safety responsibilities of the Health and Safety Executive over to the Rail Regulator. This would be wrong. Wherever responsibility for rail safety lies, it must be with a regulator who is dedicated solely to the complex safety issues on our railways -not with a regulator who has to balance safety with other responsibilities.

Britain’s railways have had a ten year roller coaster ride. The Government is right to make this opportunity for a policy review – but the government would be wrong to put unnecessary constraints on what the review can achieve.