Why privatisation makes railways unsafe
The sequence of events after a rail disaster is now familiar: first, the speculation (or the hope in some quarters) that vandalism or, more excitingly, sabotage is the cause; next, the attempt to blame some lowly worker (a driver, an engineer or a signalman); and finally, an inquiry which establishes that, all along, the responsibility lay with poor management and poor safety standards. As a coda, the inquiry makes recommendations, which are acted upon, if at all, only tardily. And after a decent interval, we learn that - in the absence of a note signed by a fat controller stating "we need profits, and we don't care if people die" - no company or senior person can possibly be held responsible, still less charged with manslaughter or negligence.
So far, the Potters Bar disaster on 10 May, in which seven people died, has followed this pattern almost precisely; details are beginning to emerge of how the faulty points that caused the crash had created concern for weeks before, of warnings given and ignored. We are told not to rush to judgement as to the causes. But the apologists for privatisation (who must, since they did not immediately renationalise, include new Labour ministers) have no such difficulty. They are ready with the usual litany. Rail is still safer than roads; there were worse disasters under British Rail; other countries have safe privatised systems; we don't worry about privately owned aeroplanes taking off from separately owned airports and being maintained by separately owned private contractors. All this may be true, but it is utterly irrelevant. Motoring has become safer and more comfortable, and people expect rail to do so, too. (In fact, railway safety had been improving steadily for decades and in the seven years before privatisation there were just eight deaths.) The relationship between an aeroplane and a runway is not nearly so complex as that between a train and its track. Most telling of all, inquiries have shown that each of the main disasters since privatisation - Southall (seven dead), Ladbroke Grove (31 dead) and Hatfield (four dead) - were largely attributable, in a very precise way, to the failures of a fragmented system under private ownership.
At Ladbroke Grove, for example, the driver passed a red signal on a section of track where this problem had repeatedly occurred and where there were difficulties in sighting the signals. A middle-ranking executive at First Great Western tried to persuade Railtrack to act but couldn't find exactly who was responsible and kept being fobbed off. In the new structure of the railways, she was an outsider, a mere customer finding it hard, as we all do when dealing with large organisations, to get hold of the right person. The Cullen inquiry into the disaster reported "incompetent management and inadequate process". Christian Wolmar, in his book Broken Rails, finds this verdict too kind. "Treating recommendations of inquiries as if they were irrelevant, persistently failing to take ... action which was clearly set out in the rules and misleading the company's own auditors [over whether, six months before Ladbroke Grove, the signals in the area were being reviewed] is symptomatic of a culture of almost venal ineptitude". Wolmar has no doubt that Railtrack gave too much weight to managers concerned with commercial development, too little to those concerned with safety.
Hatfield was the result of a cracked rail. Many people had known about it for nearly a year. But the difficulty in the privatised railway system is that, when track needs repairing, trains may have to be cancelled or delayed at weekends and Railtrack has to pay tariffs to the operators. If the work overruns into a weekday morning, the penalties become fiercer; Railtrack will naturally try to charge the maintenance company subcontracted to do the work; and the company, fearful of ending up with a whacking loss on the job, may try to rush it. As Ian Jack wrote in his book The Crash that Stopped Britain, such "adversarial relationships" are at the heart of the philosophy that invented the privatised railway. The cracked rail at Hatfield was due to be replaced a month after the disaster happened. But it would probably have been replaced much sooner, had Railtrack and the engineers been able to agree on a suitable time during the busy summer period.
Afterwards, the then boss of Railtrack, Gerald Corbett, admitted that engineers had too marginal a role and told a committee of MPs that "there is a conflict between performance and safety". And the chief executive of Great North Eeastern Railway, which ran the derailed Hatfield train, said: "The accident . . . was not caused by a broken rail. It ... was the result of complete incompetence by the management somewhere between Railtrack and the contractor". That nobody could pinpoint exactly where the incompetence occurred is characteristic of the privatised system.
Can the crash at Potters Bar be blamed on similar faults? Perhaps not, given that Railtrack's move into administration has taken some of the commercial imperatives out of the system. Yet the flawed structure remains. The pro-privatisers should not be allowed to get away with their excuses, particularly because they strive to impose another such lunacy on London, to say nothing of several developing countries. The common-sense public view that commercial considerations override safety - a view which sages airily dismiss as simplistic - happens to be right. The pro-privatisers reckon there can be no conflict: they argue that a reputation for killing its customers is the last thing that any business wants. But both Railtrack and the train operators are monopoly businesses; passengers do not have a choice of trains or tracks as they have a choice, albeit to a limited extent, of airlines or airports.
Rail should never have been taken out of public ownership; it should be returned there forthwith.
This article first appeared as a leader in the New Statesman on 20 May 2002 and is republished with the kind permission. The New Statesman was founded in London by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Bernard Shaw and a small but influential group of Fabians in 1913, taking over the Nation and Athenaeum in 1931, The Weekend Review in 1933, New Society in 1988 and Marxism Today in December 1991. You can subscribe to free email updates and the New Statesman print edition.