Wanted: expert with no experience

According to the Times’ Michael Gove, rail privatisation in the UK was a great success. Indeed, on the metrics he cites, it was. Pre-Hatfield, punctuality was no worse than under BR, trains were cleaner, food improved, and the staff became a bit more customer-focused. Some new trains also materialised.

However, many believe the network’s collapse wasn’t due to Mr Gove’s communist saboteurs, but rather to the fact that the cash savings being made by Railtrack up to 2000 were at the expense of maintenance spending. As any engineer will tell you (come to that, as you’ll know if you’ve owned a house or car), you can get away with not spending on renewal in the medium term – but at some point, you’re likely to see a catastrophic systems failure.

It’s possible that this isn’t a good model to describe the 1996-2000 period in rail maintenance, and that Railtrack was actually spending more wisely on renewals than its predecessors, rather than not at all.

The problem in evaluating these explanations is that (+/-)everyone who knows enough about the rail industry to know whether Railtrack’s maintenance procedures were adequate has a strong incentive to believe that they weren’t. If you live in a culture where it’s drilled into you that “these procedures must be followed, and anything else is dangerous”, then you’ll tend to regard changes – especially cost-driven ones – as dangerous.

So while I’m strongly tempted to follow the common-sense view that the engineers share (that Railtrack woefully underinvested), I haven’t seen anything that convincingly sets to rest the counterargument. I’d very much like to.

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7 thoughts on “Wanted: expert with no experience

  1. Government is to blame. Everything to how many staff they employ to how the ticket is split up to ‘track access charges’ is controlled by the government. They are interfering useless bumwits who are raping the system for their own personal gains. Treating private companies like this its no wonder they won’t invest. **** off would be the answer.

    Because all of the structure is fixed like track access charges. How does Railtrack make money. It’s banned from running trains. Can’t invest in anything. The only way to make money was to cut costs. Shareholders demanded this. It was never a real company. The government made sure of that. Without sudsidy it would not have able to invest in anything and would collapse. However the new Network Rail. Exactly the same as Railtrack with a new name. Is nither private or public. So it is accountable to no one. Do you think it will plough its profits back into the railway. What profit? It will never make any. Because quite simply it will ask the government to give it more and more. It already cost over twice as much as Railtrack. Their policy will be we don’t have to make a profit. So how much money shall we lose this year.

    I have suggested before as Darling looks like he might have the guts to do. Is hand over the infrastructure and signalling to the TOC’s and reduce the amount of TOC’s to about 6-8. Nationalisation is not an option. If labour hadn’t of nationalised everthing in the 40’s and the railways in 1948 this problem would probably not exist. London & North Eastern Railway, Southern Railway, Great Western Railway, were proud companies that were ripped of by the Government. Good old Labour hey. Smash and grab.

    Now no private companies want to invest. Unless they are givin 30 yr contracts and are only liabel for the first £1mil. Serves the government right.

  2. Interesting comment – thanks! Two thoughts:

    1) It’s often possible to cut costs efficiently – see the electricity / water / gas utilities.

    2) When the railways were nationalised postwar, they were already bankrupt.

  3. 2) When the railways were nationalised postwar, they were already bankrupt.

    Yes thats right. Guess who bankrupted them. I’ll give you a clue. The government. They owed these companies collectivly over £100 million each. thats £1 bil in todays money. times 4. So four billion. Do you think they would have been banckrupt if the crappy government payed up. Do you think Network Rail would be banckrupt without the government. NR would die tomrrow if the government withdrew all support. This thinking really gets on my nerves. I suggest you dig deeper in transport blog. You’ll find the real reason the companies were bankrupt. They were profitable until postwar. Why didn’t the government help them instead of smah and grab. The only people that say they were bankcrupt are the unions and the government. Do I belive them. Do I fu**. No. 1 Yea i totaly agree. No. 2 is a lie.

  4. Bankrupt – not entirely, as is usually the way with these things. The LNER (Kings Cross and north east) had been on the brink for the whole of its 25 year existence: the LMS had just about got its act together by 1939 but then caught the worst of the bombing and wartime overuse. The GWR was always profitable, mostly because it dominated the Welsh coal market and had a continuous existence going back more than a century. The SR had commuter traffic for its bread and butter, and was investing heavily in new stock and electrification in the 3 years prior to nationalisation. The point in what Labour did in ’48 was not to rescue the railways, but to bring together all transport under a state umbrella – road transport also being nationalised.

  5. The SR question is particularly interesting – given that commuter traffic was keeping it profitable up to 1939 at least, and that (although freight has died somewhat) commuter traffic has risen in the last 50 years, how do the three ex-SR franchises now manage to command £200m in subsidy between them?

  6. Good question John. How do they. With age old coaches. Track out of date and cannot own infrastructure and most money being eaten up in consultant fees and laywers. The government thought it was good to have franchisee’s. This way if anyone fails we will keep all the investment. Reality No company like Connex was going to invest when it was continued to be threatened with its Franchise. It’s no surprise they need subsidy. No company botheres to invest with this short termism. We need either long term franchises with infratructre and trains. Or real comanies like the Sourthen Railway plc and floated for either £1 bil on the stock exchange if it is worth that much or owned by a company like Go-Ahead. We need less companies owning infrastucture and trains. They’ve proved that rail can be profitable. Food is more important than rail and that is sold by private companies such as Tesco and Sainsburies. We need to move on now.

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