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Railwatch 078 - December 1998

Railwatch - Railtrack's big success

The Public Affairs department of Railtrack is indeed a genuine success. All the investment promises, the grand rescue of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the presentation of the increase in profitability, all give the message well: lots of jam tomorrow, beautifully spread.

Contrast that with the recent OPRAF results showing yet another downturn in performance by the Train Operating Companies (TOCs).

There is a continuing downward spiral on services. Profits go up, public service goes down! No surprises. Most of us within the industry knew this would happen anyway.

Now in addition we have Gerald Corbett, Chief Executive of Railtrack, affecting Mussolini's zeal and suggesting he can make the trains run on time. He believes privatisation was primarily to cut out government subsidy, boost traffic levels and improve punctuality. Welcome to the real world of railways, Mr Corbett.

Indeed if he really is signalling a change of attitude it is all to the good but for that change to work the philosophy he now embraces will need to filter down his own organisation and that of the TOCs.

Mr Corbett's approach differs from that of his financial director Mr Broadhurst who in a recent statement said: "Train operators should face tougher penalties if they fail to deliver services of acceptable quality."

Mr Broadhurst, emulating a pot talking of the kettle's colour in disparaging terms had the temerity and lack of railway knowledge to believe train performance is in the hands of the train operating companies.

Railtrack owns the infrastructure and is responsible for the performance of the contractors it employs to maintain it. It is responsible for railway safety, it regulates the trains one with another and thereby determines minute-by-minute performance. Much of the railway's bad performance is down to Railtrack and one wonders why there are not more complaints coming from the TOCs themselves. Can it be because any delays are paid for by Railtrack as compensation and the revenues thus received make up some of the TOCs' cash shortfalls? It is an encouragement to shut up and take the money!

Railtrack is a vastly successful company in financial terms and can afford to pay out the compensation, so the crumbs from the rich man's table feed the people below. The train performance gets worse, the sad apologists appear on the television with more and more ludicrous excuses - "We've got the builders in so everything is a muddle" was the latest lame excuse.

For the whole period when the controversial privatisation proposals were wending their way through the legislative process, many activists in RDS and other groupings were able to provide information to opposition parties. Through those exchanges the absence of any "directing mind" plus the absence of an effective consumer voice were identified as key issues.

By this time, the pace with which railway policy was being developed was clearly being led by a timetable related to the forthcoming general election.

It was inevitable that the myriad of problems this was creating would need an overarching solution and a proposal for a Strategic Rail Authority came into being. That went into the New Labour policy and became a manifesto commitment.

Where has that got us to now with every day that passes revealing ever more ludicrous developments and a decline in actual service delivery for which Railtrack seeks to distance itself? The Deputy Prime Minister is very voluble about these issues, but what is he to do about Railtrack? Like the train operating companies he is dependent upon the riches of Railtrack. If he upsets Railtrack, where would his Channel Tunnel Rail Link be - without Railtrack to build it?

The worry, and it always has been a worry, is that of safety. The questions that Mr Corbett needs to answer are about maintenance and investment. BR watched over by a vigilant government, albeit Tory, kept accounts of investment and maintenance apart.

It was easy to see how much was going on maintenance of infrastructure and how much into investment. Now the processes are muddled and it is extremely difficult to distinguish between them.

The sort of questions that need addressing are about maintenance. For instance how many signalling interlockings have the sign: "Do not touch in view of age" on the door?

Just what plans are there to replace old signalling interlocking? A modernisation programme is needed if only to keep pace with what BR was undertaking.

If there is no enabling legislation in the Queen's speech and the BR Board is resurrected as a stop gap, that will not in my view be sufficient. The impression it will give is one of same circus as before, just different clowns! However if that happens and the board is no longer defunct, it should pick up other responsibilities which have been allowed to fade away. What about all 94 recommendations of Sir Anthony Hidden after Clapham? We should ask the born-again board, if that is what we get in place of a Strategic Rail Authority, what the position is on those recommendations which it said it would accept in full in 1989!

So congratulations to Philip Dewhurst, corporate affairs director of Railtrack who has just been awarded the title "PR Professional of the Year".

On actual railway operation, on investments and real maintenance, sadly not many congratulations are due.

Peter Rayner

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