9 Aug 2018

Trainspotting: a Potemkin privatisation

Swiss Trains. Courtesy eisenbahnfans.ch

Nothing like a trip to Switzerland to provide comparison with our own chronic railway system. In Switzerland the trains run like clockwork. Sleek inter-city, regional and suburban electric trains glide in and out of the stations immaculately on time. From main line stations light railways and buses fan out providing quick, absolutely reliable connections to all the small towns and villages of the hinterland. Your hotel gives you a free pass to all local transport. It is brilliant. Lausanne, where the TGV arrives, has two metro lines and also quiet, pollution-free trolley buses such as Leeds planned but were deemed by Whitehall to ‘not be in the public interest’. Lausanne’s population, by the way, is less than half that of Leeds.

Swiss Graphic Design

Yes, well dream on. Switzerland is a different world to Britain although both cling to obsolete myths of exceptionalism. Switzerland indeed managed to ‘have its cake and eat it’ in the twentieth century but it did so in a quiet, well ordered way quite unlike the blustering Britain of today. The railways are part of that orderliness. They are a key element of cementing national unity in a country of linguistic, religious and geographic division and they are an element of national pride. It was not always thus. The first railways were built privately, didn’t connect up and were financially unstable – a familiar story. The federal government took them over in 1910 and went on to develop the enviable integrated network of today. The Swiss were not stupid enough to play ideological silly buggers with rail privatisation and it is not surprising that Switzerland has the highest rail usage of any country in Europe.

SBB CFF FFS electric. Courtesy eisenbahnfans.ch

But not everything about railways in mainland Europe is great. Macron’s ‘structural reforms’ have yet to make much impact on SNCF and our recent experience of France’s grands projects was not encouraging. The TGV from Lausanne was 90 minutes late into Paris, and it wasn’t even a strike day. The air conditioning didn’t work, the toilets were disgusting and train announcements as inaudible as in Jacques Tati’s famous 1953 film ‘Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday’. A desperate attempt to sprint across Paris to catch our connection was thwarted by the hideous RER – broken down trains, slow, horribly crowded, terrible signage and none of the escalators working. And then there was total chaos at the Gare du Nord Eurostar terminal.

A twitter feed in meltdown 

It was a relief to arrive back at handsome, well ordered St Pancras with the fast, frequent Victoria Line to whisk us home. But from the Eurostar carriage window your first sight is of an ancient East Midlands Train belching diesel into the beautifully restored station. The station departure boards attest to the long list of casualties of the Thameslink disaster. Welcome to Grayling’s England.

Egotistical railways. Courtesy Train Photos

The Thameslink debacle is just one of the catalogue of disasters of Britain’s privatised rail industry, along with the chaos on Southern and the meltdown of Northern Rail and Transpennine Express. But a bigger scandal is Virgin walking away from its East Coast contract because it couldn’t make enough money. Unbelievably this is the second time this has happened. When National Express crashed out of its franchise in 2009 a publically owned operator took over and ran East Coast successfully and at a profit to the Exchequer. However in 2015 the Government’s ideological obsession with privatisation resulted in the Virgin take over. Now we have a public sector 'operator of last resort' again, 'London North Eastern Railway', but Grayling couldn't even get the atavistic name right; it should be London AND North Eastern Railway, a subtle but significant difference.

The Department for Transport

But however piss poor the private rail companies are the real failures of the rail industry are those of the Government itself. Because in what sense are the railways really privatised? The Government owns the track and pays for investment in the infrastructure. It dictates the timetables, service specification and even the rolling stock. It sets basic fares and conditions. The rail companies don’t own anything and have no long term interest. Franchises move from one company to another with little more than a change of name, livery and TUPEd staff. But the railways cost the taxpayer £5 billion a year – that’s roughly three times as much as British Rail cost in the 1990s, at present day prices.

What an absolute shower

So the railways have a facade of privatisation with a cacophony of company liveries, flashy advertising and marketing but actually civil servants and ministers are in charge. It suits the Government to pretend that the railways are privately run 'cos this fits their dogma. More importantly it conveniently blurs accountability. Who for example is responsible for the Thameslink fiasco? Is it the franchisee Govia, partly owned by SNCF? But Govia was only awarded this huge and unwieldy franchise in 2015. It includes the whole Southern network and Great Northern as well as Thameslink. DaFT (as Private Eye rightly calls the government department responsible) dreamt this one up. It also approved all the details in the Govia bid. Is Network Rail responsible? The engineering complexity of the Thameslink project and lack of in-house skills meant NR was dependent on myriad contractors and was delivered late. Meanwhile the ORR (Office of Rail and Road – the ‘independent’ quango responsible for the economic and safety regulation of the railways) told Network Rail to reduce the costs of preparing timetables and so capacity was reduced here, which meant that the new timetable was finalised far too late and so not enough drivers could be trained on the new routes. But the ORR is now ostentatiously pointing the finger at everyone else. Possibly the fault might lie with the Transport Minister and his predecessors for presiding over this shambles. Apparently not, according to Chris Grayling as he is 'not an expert in trains'. So there is the answer; no-one has overall responsibility because the railway industry has been deliberately fragmented and deliberately made inscrutable and unaccountable.

An integrated graphic system 

The Design Research Unit – take pride in that

How did this happen? Well, it is the consequence of the triumph of political ideology over experience, evidence, analysis and rational planning and investment – a very British syndrome. Britain of course invented railways but it was always wedded to the principle of private enterprise which resulted in a highly fragmented network. By the twentieth century the early dynamism and invention of the railway companies had atrophied into complacency and a lack of iinvestment. This was masked by the romance of the Flying Scotsman and later sentimental nostalgia for steam and eccentrity, epitomised by Betjeman and Flanders and Swann. The clapped out railways was part of the carnival of pageantry so beloved of the English. Although nationalised in 1947 little changed until the 1960s with the savage Beeching cuts along with the introduction of diesels and some electrification. Whereas other countries like France saw their rail networks as national assets and invested in them (the first TGV line opened as early as 1981) in Britain the railways were regarded as a liability, of little use outside the London commuter belt. Jokes about British Rail sandwiches, which still have currency today, are revealing of political and public attitudes. In reality the latter decades of British Rail were a time of great progress, with huge engineering and technical achievement. With the help of brilliant design and marketing a real national network was finally achieved.

A sticking plaster solution. Courtesy Matt Buck

However the neo-liberal zeitgeist was privatisation. Mrs Thatcher had the sense not to do it, but her successor gave us the 1993 Act which essentially set up the present buggers-muddle, which the Labour government did not reverse. This Potemkin  privatisation separates train operations from track and infrastructure. This was sold off to Railtrack whose incompetence and negligence resulted in the Hatfield disaster. It had to be re-nationalised as Network Rail. Meanwhile the rolling stock had been flogged off to private companies which leased it back to the train operators at rip off rates, effectively paid for by the ballooning public subsidy for rail. Train operations were split up into some 20 ‘franchises’. The theory was that competition would drive down costs and private enterprise would give that je ne sais qua which produces innovation and good customer service. However the reality of running the rail network meant there could be very little competition – Hull Trains being the most successful of the few ‘open access’ services.

Layer upon layer, mistake after mistake. Courtesy Hugh Llewelyn

The other great shibboleth was that the private sector would also invest in the railways and take financial risk. Franchises resemble PFIs – detailed specifications for providing public services covering many variables over a long period and are horribly complicated and unaccountable. Effectively the public sector pays much more for the private sector to take the financial risk and drive down costs, so it is worth letting Virgin et al rake in exorbitant profits. Well that was the theory anyway, but it didn’t work out that way as the Virgin East Coast debacle lays bare, and National Express and South Eastern beforehand. This amateur-night approach to risk and private sector investment goes to the heart of the problem with the current franchising system. It is just hiding or deferring government spending, like PFIs, and is also a major reason that rail finance is so inscrutable.

This is how we might do it. Courtesy Matt Buck

There are other ways to franchise. For the phenomenally successful Overground network TfL simply specifes the timetable and rolling stock required. TfL sets the fares, takes the risk and the fare income, so profits are re-invested rather than siphoned off by Richard Branson et al. Many European countries follow the same model, but of course that would not be a recommendation to the present Government.

Sheffield: 685,369 people, and 0 electric trains

However the performance of publically-owned Network Rail suggests that re-nationalisation is not by itself going to be the answer to the intractable problems of the railways. It is the chronic failures of Network Rail to deliver infrastructure improvements that have precipitated the current existential crisis of the railways. The catastrophe of Network Rail’s electrification programme has been well rehearsed. Great Western electrification, announced in 2009, has been massively delayed and costs have tripled from £874m to £2.8bn today. Meanwhile DaFT have saddled the railways with expensive to build and operate bi-mode trains, which become the rationale for abandoning much of the planned electrification. So Bristol, Swansea and Oxford will not see electric running for the foreseeable future. Similarly the Midland Main Line electrification will stop at Corby with Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, three of the ten biggest cities in England, relegated to bi-mode diesel power. So a government which is promoting the phasing out of diesel cars by 2040 is investing in bi-mode trains so it can continue to run diesel trains into our big cities  until, er, well after 2040 – mad or what?

Todmorden: a more difficult terrain than Switzerland?

Even more incredible given the hype about the Northern Powerhouse is the Government’s prevarication over completing electrification from Manchester to Leeds – a distance of only about 40 miles. Electrification from Liverpool to York was approved in 2011 and should have been completed by now. Grayling argues that the topography is ‘very difficult’ which sounds pretty thin having just come back from Switzerland where all the railways are electrified. But in Blighty bi-mode trains are the (expensive and unsatisfactory) solution to all problems, according to DaFT.

Newark North Gate: electrified in the 1980s. Courtesy Matt Buck

The reason Network Rail can’t deliver the infrastructure improvements required is that, after two decades of the government messing around with privatisation, it lacks the capacity and in-house resources required. The experience of the rail industry has been fragmented and squandered. When the 400km East Coast line was electrified in the 1980s British Rail delivered this on time and on budget. Of course that expertise should have been used for a rolling programme of electrification, but this knowledge, experience, skills and commitment were lost. When Network Rail took over from Railtrack a very different culture obtained.

HS2 – not very well thought through

The failures of Network Rail to modernize the network efficiently are often cited as one of the reasons why we need to go ahead with HS2. It’s too difficult to repair the old network, let's build a new one. The logic of this is terrifying – a slash and burn philosophy totally at odds with sensible use of resources and protection of the natural environment. In any event the argument rings very hollow given the latest report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority which predicts that HS2 is likely to go 40% over budget from £56bn to £80bn, and that there is ‘no credible plan to gauge or manage progress’.

The metropolis of Toton

As we explored in our 2013 blog ‘High Speed to Nowhere’ the premises and projected benefits of HS2 are highly questionable. But as a grand prestige project it has developed a life of its own, free from effective external scrutiny, ‘too big to fail’. Of course the huge cost of HS2 will have a massive impact on investment in the existing rail network as the IPA highlight. This is already happening with HS2 explicitly cited as a reason why there is no need now to electrify the MML.

Nottingham: 729,977 people, 0 electric trains

The main rationale of HS2 is that it will promote economic growth in the Midlands and North, although even the theoretical models show most economic benefits accrue to London, not the provinces. Certainly cities in the Midlands and North require major investment in their railway infrastructure but HS2 does not address their most pressing issues, poor public transport within conurbations and poor connections between cities. Actually trains to London are already frequent and fairly fast, although they could be improved by much more modest investment.

An alternative strategy would see investment across the network and in cities rather than focused on grands projects. The argument that this would not happen because more modest and incremental improvements are not sexy enough for Government really just underlines the huge problems of transport politics. A grown up approach to investment is required, not one driven by glossy marketing.

To the North, not North East London

An alternative rail improvement to HS2 would involve making the best use of existing capacity. For example, the huge investment in Crossrail and Thameslink takes outer suburban trains out of Paddington and King’s Cross, allowing these termini to handle more main line trains. And actually only half of the Crossrail trains will run west of Paddington, so there is an opportunity to divert outer suburban WCML trains onto Crossrail releasing significant capacity at Euston without the massive engineering operation and environmental destruction required for the new station. If planned ECML and MML improvements are actually delivered this will significantly increase capacity on these lines. Then again the Chiltern Line is the old GWR main line to Birmingham and is shorter than the Euston route. With electrification and modest upgrades more and faster trains could operate to Birmingham from Paddington releasing capacity on the WCML.

Too many First Class coaches. Courtesy Matt Buck

Much additional capacity could also be provided if inter-city trains were longer and with fewer largely empty First Class coaches. Thameslink already operates 12 carriage trains but others on the same lines such as East Midlands Trains, Hull Trains, Grand Central often run only 4 or 5 carriages. Prioritising investment in improved signaling would allow more trains to run on existing track.

Manchester Piccadilly platforms

However there remains a major issue of congestion on the approaches to Birmingham and Manchester and platform capacity at New Street, Piccadilly, Leeds City and other stations. The mix of inter-city trains and local stopping trains on the same track is a problem.   Additional platforms at Manchester can be provided at Piccadilly with the four-tracking the Piccadilly-Oxford Road route, which DaFT amazingly told Grayling wasn’t necessary! At Birmingham the problem is more complex. What is really required is an additional low level station at New Street, the sort of thing being done in cities like Antwerp, Stuttgart, Malmö and Vienna. But a smiling Grayling endorses the cheapskate ‘Midlands Connect’ plan for a ‘One Birmingham’ station which pretends that New St, Moor St and the new HS2 Curzon St are really just different ‘terminals’. Big joke, as explored in our recent Birmingham blog.

Local stopping trains and terrible graphics

A sensible strategy would focus large scale investment on public transport within provincial cities, especially Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds rather than expensive and environmentally damaging new lines to London duplicating existing infrastructure. Manchester and Birmingham desperately need proper underground Metros such as their European counterparts have. This would help release main line capacity currently used by suburban trains. Northern Powerhouse Rail, what was HS3, should also be a priority. The advantages of this strategy are that it would be cheaper overall, improve the wider existing network, be more flexible and incremental in relation to actual demand and other changes and allow the real issues of rail transport needs to be addressed.

Bristol: 617,280 people and 0 electric trains

It will be a challenge to get a sensible rail investment strategy because the problem is not just about HS2 but about the structure, political role and decision making of the industry. In a sense the ‘big bang’ HS2 project is a desperate response to the sclerosis of the industry that can’t manage to electrify 40 miles across the Pennines, or take wires into Bristol Temple Meads, for god’s sake.

So this happened, re-issuing the BR corporate identity manual

The problems of Network Rail are not easily fixed, especially given the political culture of short-termism, mendacity and self-delusion within which it must work. The only real solution is to re-invent a properly resourced, integrated and holistic rail organization like British Rail. Over time this would develop the capacity, experience, memory and public service ethos that is currently lacking. It will need a medium to long term investment plan to allow for sensible planning. This does not mean that BR mk2 would need to run everything directly but it must have the capacity to effectively manage contracted services and it must be able to require co-operation within the currently fragmented industry. Given the current political delusion, deception, incompetence and confusion of responsibility, this outcome is highly unlikely. Is it any wonder the rail industry is in such a mess? But remember, this did not happen by accident - it was very deliberate.


Unknown said...

Great stuff as always Adrian. Disintegration + dogma + disinvestment × ducking responsibility = disgrace

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Erudite, polemical, passionate and correct

DimSum said...

I stumbled across this by accident, but it makes for one of the clearest and most compelling accounts of a fragmented and incomprehensibly complex rail systems I have come across. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I agree an excellent analysis. It is also illustrative of a country that is rapidly disintegrating socially and physically, bought low by both the venal, morally bankrupt right and the dogmatic, identity politics fixated left.

Stephen Barker said...

Your point about the lack of connections between cities outside London is well made. Leicester and Coventry are only 20/25 miles apart but there is no direct service between the two. The East Midlands as a whole is not particularly well integrated and the the East Midland Main Line seems to be treated as a second class main line. If it runs the 125s for much longer it will become a working Heritage railway.