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Railwatch 070 - December 1996

Freight chance

I have been conscious that this column always seems to be knocking privatisation, saying how bad it is, and bemoaning our fate.

I certainly make no secret of the fact that, although not against privatisation per se, I think the method adopted unsatisfactory and, more importantly, unsafe.

It is true, however, old BR certainly had its detractors but the fact we managed the network with financial skill, safely and to the best of our ability is easily forgotten. It is also forgotten that a succession of governments of both colours underfunded us and used us for political games.

My fight, if it is a fight, is to set the record straight with regard to how well BR managed and how loyal and safety conscious was its workforce.

This time I do not seek to justify the past but to see who are the winners in today's privatised railway and also to assess any of its advantages.

Paint manufacturers certainly come top of the list, along with uniform manufacturers. They must be doing well with the multiplicity of ownerships. Lawyers, accountants, management consultants are also among the winners. One train operating company could not even send a letter of thanks to the fire brigade after an accident without having the letter checked by its solicitor.

On the freight side of the railway, some real progress is being made. Train crews are going on longer, more productive, turns of duty.

Lodging crews away from home to return next day has and will continue to improve the economies of rail. Such journeys as Southampton to Leeds would have involved crew changes in the old system.

I also like the approach of Ed Burkhardt to the subject. In a recent letter to his English Welsh & Scottish Railway, he expresses views which I, for one, have been rebuked in the past for uttering.

We tried for years to develop the freight railway but massive costs were always heaped on the freight operation. Much of InterCity's profit incidentally was at the expense of freight.

I ran a freight and passenger railway over a third of BR and it was difficult to defend rail freight's position. Our political masters were interested in commuter and InterCity services but freight often took the hindmost. "BR poisoned the well everywhere it went," says Burkhardt. "It ran off single wagon shipments and made it impossible for anyone but the largest shippers to use rail."

Later in the same letter, he says: "Even among the remaining trainload customers, BR made enemies through unmitigated greed in pricing and forced customers to buy their own wagons and even their own locomotives."

It is heart warming to those of us who were moved aside for expressing similar views to hear them again from a position of strength.

The BR press office official response was that "BR ran a successful and profitable rail freight business in accordance with objectives set it by successive secretaries of state."

True! And the Government supported the road lobby to such an extent that BR freight was, as Mr Burkhardt points out, on a steady decline towards oblivion.

Double talk is the curse of society. I listened to Terry Wogan's prattle while driving into Newbury of all places. When I say driving, I mean moving forward every few minutes and swearing at the congestion caused by road works.

Wogan was interrupted by road watch statements from the AA. Having listed many blockages and delays, including my own, the broadcast ended with: "The trains and buses are all on time!"

How could all the buses have been on time. I could see several stuck in my own traffic jam. I also considered the value of a bypass which will merely move the congestion somewhere else.

The freight railway could make much more effective use of the money spent on new roads. Burkhardt at least speaks openly and deserves help in developing rail freight.

There has to be compromise. Proper regulation, public service requirements - and NO opportunity for sharp practice. Politicians should give us more than pious hopes and rhetoric.

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