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.