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Railwatch 071 - April 1997

Out of tune

In the last Railwatch, I found it hard going to find many advantages resulting from privatisation.

Since then we have had a number of blatantly incorrect statements from Government sources which grossly overstate the success of privatisation.

It is to the credit of the new private operating companies, the rolling stock companies and Railtrack that they are not singing the same oft-ludicrous song of praise we hear from Railways Minister John Watts.

Like so many politicians in history, Mr Watts appears to believe his own propaganda.

I and several other operators and engineers with many years railway experience have been corresponding with Mr Watts about the number of potentially dangerous incidents that occur following the increased use of contractors.

Statistics are quoted in such a way that the smooth answer - which is not easy to check - often prevails.

For instance, the fact that the number of reported incidents is down could be explained by the fact that less work is being undertaken. It is difficult to establish the truths when plausible politicians' talk is now so much part of the railway.

It would be better for us to concentrate on reading the thoughtful and detailed articles appearing in Modern Railways and Rail which have carefully pointed out many of the disadvantages.

It is good to see that the Rail Regulator himself has joined in the criticism. In his final report on Accurate and Impartial Retailing, he pours scorn on the 'Tesco will not advertise Sainsbury baked beans' analogy" and insists that the companies can and will co-operate to provide a network.

It is sad that most professional railway people know that this is not possible with the method of privatisation adopted by the Government.

The Regulator has also queried the shortfall in infrastructure investment, a little too late for my liking.

He is making the correct noises and alerting Railtrack to the fact that he is less than satisfied with its performance so far.

Railtrack shareholders are no doubt more than satisfied with the "progress".

Yet I see no evidence of private investment leading us to great infrastructure schemes. Indeed, if the West Coast main line is anything to go by, the reverse is the case.

How can such a fragmented system possibly deliver infrastructure benefits that benefit the network rather than one operator?

Electrification of Crewe to Kidsgrove is a case in point. Who is going to sponsor something of value to the network as a whole but is not of enormous value to any one operator?

Surely this indicates the need for a strategic rail authority that will look at these sort of national benefits just as the "Department of Roads" (the DoT) tries to ensure road building comes logically together into a network.

Instead of protesting how good things are, the Government needs to be more objective and pointing the way forward.

It is difficult to talk about ways of funding improvements without thinking of the immoral use of state income - derived from taxpayers - which was used to feed lawyers and accountants during the privatisation process.

Now there is another immorality that faces us daily - pension fund surpluses which can be counted in millions.

How can the new shareholders in privatised companies deserve a profit from these surpluses - which came from the employees and was wisely invested.

The employer of course was us, the British taxpayer.

Any pension fund surpluses which cannot be used to improve the lot of the pensioner, should go to upgrade and improve the railway infrastructure of this country.

Finally, I wonder at the immorality of a society that can talk of £500 million windfalls for shareholders and yet not bother that of the 225,000 people that are receiving a pension from their former work within the rail industry, 75% receive less than £60 per week. Some reward for a lifetime of service!

Peter Rayner

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