Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Fat Controller

If proof were ever needed of how divorced from reality the Department Transport is, then one need look no further than the latest edition of Rail Professional magazine . Nestling among the various articles about track, signalling and rolling-stock is an interview [opens in PDF] with the Transport Minister, Tom Harris.

In a single throwaway line, Mr Harris reveals almost everything that is wrong with the government’s understanding of rail. On the structure of the industry he says: “It’s a logical, private industry specified by government. Don’t blame the structure for failures”.

First and foremost, it is a ludicrous contradiction to pretend that an industry tightly controlled and ‘specified’ by the government is a private one. No other private industry operates in this way: since when was Tesco told where to open stores, what to sell and what prices to charge? Moreover, how is Network Rail, the manager and guardian of all fixed railway infrastructure, a private company? It isn’t; it’s an organ of the state.

This, probably deliberate, misunderstanding by Mr Harris, is much more than a semantic argument. It is mechanism by which the government maintains power over the railways but evades any of the responsibility that comes with it. It’s the trick by which they are able to push all of the blame for recent problems onto First Great Western – which Mr Harris does elsewhere in the same interview – while pretending that their own policies and decisions had nothing to do with the issues; the old mantra of, “it’s nothing to do with the Department – rail is privately run, blame the operators”.

The fact that Mr Harris thinks the current system is logical is extremely worrying. Many words have been used to describe the privatised rail industry but ‘logical’ is seldom, if ever, among them. The present system is actually completely illogical. Just think about it. We have a system where many different companies run the trains people travel on; another group of companies rent them the trains; a further organisation runs the track and signalling; this same organisation ultimately owns the stations but, in most cases, leases them back to the same people who run the trains so they can manage them; there are several regulatory bodies which tightly control safety; some more bodies who collect data and information on rail performance; a smattering of passenger and interest groups; and, on top of all this presides the government trying to direct and coordinate all of the various elements. This, of course, is before the complex rules and regulations governing the relationships between these various agencies is taken into account. It doesn’t even sound logical in theory and, in practice, it is a recipe for mismanagement, bureaucracy and a completely disjointed approach to policy making.

That Mr Harris goes on to state that the structure shouldn’t be blamed for failures serves only to demonstrate his naïveté. No one, not even politicians, disputes the fact that there are problems on today’s rail network, but if it isn’t the system that’s at fault, then who – or what – is to blame? Mr Harris does not say, but the reality is that the system is entirely at fault: it brings few of the advantages of true private involvement while maintaining all of the problems of state intervention. The end result is that the present system delivers neither good value for the taxpayer or good service for the travelling public. Mr Harris’ failure to understand this – and by implication the Department of Transport’s lack of will to deal with the problem – does not bode well for the future of the rail network.

Throughout the interview, Mr Harris keenly emphasises how much he enjoys his job. He may well indeed, but that does not make him, or the Department he works for, qualified for the job of running Britain’s railways: that’s a role for real, commercially focused railway professionals like Alison Forster or Mary Dickson.

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