RAIL 827: DfT and NR need to step up

Look at the photograph on page 51, with Philip Haigh’s excellent column paying tribute to the Mk 1 diesel multiple unit (DMU) - the very last examples of which were withdrawn by Chiltern on May 19. 

Gavin Morrison’s photograph is an unremarkable, everyday scene showing an ordinary local train approaching Hapton (Lancashire) en route to Preston. It’s a two-car Cravens DMU leaving my home town of Burnley and personally, it’s rather special. It shows Rose Grove, where I cut my railway teeth. My dad did his apprenticeship in Thomas Ashworth’s die-casting factory, above Rose Grove West box. At lunchtime he’d sit with his sandwiches, atop the grassy bank above the hump sidings (filled here with coal wagons), watching 10F’s steam locomotives pottering about in the MPD off to the left of the ‘Cenotaph’ coaling tower, and enjoying the procession of coal trains from Yorkshire (via Copy Pit) to the Lancashire power stations - Huncoat, Padiham (you can just see the branch curving away to the left), Whitebirk (Blackburn) and Burn Naze (Fleetwood). This truly was still the steam railway, operated by diesels. My school was only a few minutes walk away and my friends and I were on Rose Grove station at every opportunity.

The DMUs linking then with today have now passed into history, and it’s an opportune moment to pause and reflect. The railway my dad watched was owned by BR - track, trains, signals, buildings… everything. If you’d told us then how the railway would be now, it would have seemed inconceivable. Laid bare in a flow chart or organogram, today’s railway looks (and is) fiendishly complex, difficult to run, riddled with irksome interfaces and prone to horribly negative media coverage, much of it self-inflicted by the industry. 

The appalling damage done to the railway’s wider image by the Southern strikes is a case in point. This has been mishandled by Government, railway and unions, all of whom have failed the passenger. Small wonder that the misery inflicted on southern commuters prompted an outbreak of campaigning for so-called re-nationaliation. Commuters want railways run differently and public ownership is the only real alternative they see, and so it has appeal. This chimes with a less strident, but equally resonant, wider national feeling that our privatised railway is ripping off passengers, creaming off profits and shrugging off public concerns. Yet again, the railway itself is largely to blame for allowing this belief to take root - I have spent the last decade and more, in vain, urging the industry to speak up and promote itself. Finally, the Rail Delivery Group under Paul Plummer has responded and launched the Britain runs on rail campaign - but it’s going to be a long haul to popularity.

Labour has ‘gone big’ on renationalisation in its General Election 2017 manifesto, peddling all the usual flawed arguments and misconceptions. The current structure is far from perfect, but after 21 years watching it, I am crystal clear that it has delivered the best railway we’ve ever had - but it still costs far too much, especially our infrastructure. 

Would-be nationalisers constantly preach that the pre-Virgin publicly owned East Coast is the poster boy for turning back the clock. Labour’s big idea is to take franchises back as they expire and have the Department for Transport run them, through a Directly Operated Railways-type organisation. Well, if anyone can comment on the merits of that idea it’s the man who ran DOR/EC - so I asked Michael Holden to tell us if he believes DOR ‘writ large’ would work across the network. His answer is a resounding ‘no’. Michael concludes (pages 46-49) that the EC arrangement could only work temporarily, that making it work at all was incredibly difficult, and that rolling it out nationally is a very bad idea.

That said, doing nothing is not an option either. As Michael also points out, while franchising has indeed delivered a better railway, its inherent flaws combined with a failure to keep up with changing technologies and other problems has led to a shortage of bidders today. Government must tackle this problem - quickly. To have only two bidders for a prime franchise such as South West Trains is more than a canary in the mine, it’s the sound of the roof creaking.

We have arrived here by different routes, but even Wolmar (pages 38-39) is in agreement with me that the DfT MUST slacken its political grip in favour of a ‘guiding mind’ of railway specialists. There is no alternative.

Christian and I both believe that Network Rail can fulfil this role, although my preference is for a fully devolved NR with a much smaller, stronger and very specialist ‘centre’ of the kind that CEO Mark Carne has been advocating. The creation of another body is not the answer, and as NR is now part of the Government it is (as Christian rightly says) the only alternative and ‘least worst’ option. There will be howls of protest by those who believe that Christian and I have either gone mad or gone native. We haven’t. Which isn’t to say that NR doesn’t have some hard work to do.

It must sort out the shambles over electrification both on the Great Western and Gospel Oak-Barking line, where some real horror stories (doubtless some apocryphal) are circulating. And here’s one area where I think NR IS failing and really needs to get a grip.

In order to continue to qualify for continued and growing support from those who wish it to win, NR needs to get rid of dead wood. My personal conclusion (with which many others agree) is that NR at the top really is trying to do the right thing - witness Wolmar’s findings about Mark Carne. We also see men and women at the coalface achieving great things. But time and again we come across and hear about the so-called ‘permafrost’ in the middle - a layer of management who culturally have decades of experience at both deflecting change and protecting their turf. 

I am told that NR Route Managing Directors know who the culprits are and where the problems really lie. They are newly empowered and should deal with these issues. The NR Board, in supporting these empowered RMDs, must also support this endeavour and make some hard choices where necessary.

Government and NR have all they need to make these crucial changes without any restructuring or setting up new bodies. Until they both grasp the nettle, the sirens of nationalisation will continue to try and seduce the wider world and we will remain stuck.

The departure of the last Mk 1 DMUs finally severs one of the last real links with the old railway. It’s high time for some bold moves to finally and properly secure the new railway, which is being held back by the DfT’s vice-like grip on the one hand and NR’s mid-level permafrost management on the other. We badly need that ‘guiding mind’ - if NR wants the job it must show us all it really means business.

Melt the permafrost. Ease the DfT’s grip.

Comment: RAIL 827: May 24 2017 - June 6 2017

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