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Railwatch 072 - July 1997

PLATFORM - Your letters

African nightmare

Railway privatisation mania, having run its course in the UK seems set to spread to South Africa in the near future. The African National Congress government in its desire to ingratiate itself with overseas investors has appointed the London-based investment bank HSBC and its South-African stockbrokers to advise the Ministry of Public Enterprises on the privatisation of the state-controlled transport conglomerate Transnet.

Transnet currently comprises six autonomous and competing "business units" including Spoornet (the rail network), PX (the parcels division), and Autonet (road services), into which the old South African Railways and Harbours was, in defiance of all reason, split. Thus whereas once the road transport arm serviced and was complementary to the railway goods depots and rural passenger stations, it is now in direct competition with Spoornet which has to rely almost entirely on bulk coal and iron ore traffic for its revenue. Similarly PX has moved its traffic on to the roads, and all natural synergies between the units have been lost.

It has recently been revealed that in a report to Stella Sigcau, Minister for Public Enterprises, HSBC is, contrary to all expectation, recommending that Spoornet be privatised either as a complete entity, or after a split into its component operations - timber, coal, ore etc., this to be achieved through direct sale or flotation. Its loss-making mainline passenger operation (see photo) should be concessioned or closed down.

The danger of all this in South Africa in contrast to, say, Britain, follows from the fact that here a massive and comprehensive roads lobby with considerable political clout is firmly in the ascendant, and the elimination of cross-subsidies between present rail operations will mean widespread closures. Local passenger transport services are largely in the hands of anarchic "entrepreneurs" equipped with a mini-bus or two, and a similar development is in progress with respect to long-distance traffic.

Nearly all transport infrastructural development is confined to road construction, one instance of which is the strategic trans-Kalahari freeway between the Gauteng industrial area and the Namibian port of Walvis Bay. The low prices of petrol and diesel, as well as un-enforced road regulations accelerate the trend.

The future of rail in Southern Africa is thus uncertain at best, but Transport 2000 SA will continue to attempt to expose the shortcomings of present transport policy. In this effort, Railwatch's account of the privatisation of BR is invaluable.

J F Siebert, Transport 2000 SA, c/o Department Applied Maths, Cape Town University, Cape Town 7700, South Africa(/i>

Fires on trains

It is a few years since I read the Railway Inspector's report on the sleeper train fire at Taunton. However, the conclusion was that locked doors had no effect on the number of passengers who died.

They were poisoned by fumes as they slept and didn't even wake up. Fumes are indeed the great danger. The Fire Brigade did complain about locked doors hindering access to fight the fire. That is a separate issue to do with saving property rather than life and I gather improvements have been made.

In the case of the Eurotunnel fire there are serious questions which need addressing. Particularly why getting into the service tunnel was slow and why the coach filled with smoke.

However, I suspect that several of the lorry drivers would have been killed had they wandered around a fume-filled running tunnel.

Emergency exit is available from every door of a train, not just every coach, via emergency releases. The releases are a compromise between an easy to use panic bar sort of system, which would be abused by children, and locked doors, which would be dangerous.

Unlike an emergency exit from a building, a train moves and there is extreme danger outside. The design of the release is a compromise which I think is about right. If they were made more obvious and easier to use people would complain the first time someone opened the door of a moving train and fell out.

I have been stuck for a long time on local trains in London with no information but passengers can get out via the emergency releases. Not that I recommend doing so.

However different standards are applied to road and rail. If road/road level crossings were treated in the same way as rail/road level crossings the road system would become too expensive to pay for overnight.

David Hansen, Director, Spidacom Ltd, Edinburgh david.hansen@almac.co.uk


There has been speculation about fires on trains the lack of emergency exit procedures, especially the failure of authorities to provide passengers with information.

l've long felt that the tannoy systems on today's vehicles are not used to the extent they should be. Staff should be taught to keep customers in touch with what is happening, as otherwise panic can result. On a recent visit to Nuneaton, I only knew that our stop at Nottingham of 15 minutes was scheduled because of hearing a platform announcement.

As for getting off a burning train, surely this is another factor against having automatic doors, and so few of them? In an emergency people do have to make decisions for themselves and quick ones.

Tim Mickleburgh, 33 Littlefield Lane, Grimsby, Lincs DN31 2AZ

Flexible response

Great Western's Brian Scott has been criticised in Railwatch for saying rail will revive under privatisation, and for doubting that electrification is best for the future GW.

I want the Bristol/South Wales service electrified because it is basically a long commuter route with frequent stops, best suited to electric trains.

Brian Scott makes an important point. GW still serves places such as the Cotswolds and Cornwall, off its core routes, in contrast to other InterCity operators which have withdrawn from such routes.

Electrifying these would be very expensive and of very marginal benefit. InterCity East Coast's service has not been as good as we should expect from a modern electric line, while GW's diesel service is very reliable. As for privatisation, it is early days, but there are encouraging signs of better customer service, flexible fares policies, more focused marketing and interest in buying new trains from several operators. Managers like Brian Scott who are committed to rail deserve our support and constructive criticism.

Chris Packham, 202 Unemyama-SE, 2-4-27 Nakacho, Odawara 250, Japan

Sinister move

Is there anyone out there who feels like me and shares the same suspicions?

Since the Government embarked on its "privatisation of everything" campaign, we all became customers, and millions were spent on public relations to convince us that everything is better and brighter. We all want a good service but in fact service levels have declined and there is less choice and less honesty.

For those who do not see, it seems all designed to make parting with your money seem less painful.

Please can RDS use every opportunity to discourage this patronising approach and ask for us to be addressed as passengers.

Staff on Stockport station (I know because I asked them) would prefer to address us properly but are threatened with disciplinary action if they address us "incorrectly". Sinister isn't it?

Nigel Barnes, 102 Chester Road, Poynton, Cheshire SK12 1HG

Ferry appeal

Westminster Watch mentioned the idea of a further Thames crossing below Woolwich.

I believe there is a reasonable case for a new vehicle ferry linking Thamesmead with the East London road network and a new branch of the Docklands Light Railway. This would relieve Woolwich without generating too much traffic elsewhere.

However, there is a much stronger case for improving public transport links between Essex and Kent. On the Tilbury Ferry corridor, connections have deteriorated noticeably since Tilbury Riverside was closed; a journey between Romford and Gravesend now needs four changes and an hour's waiting time, more than the actual travel time.

The advent of the Lakeside shopping centre looked as though it might lead to regular bus services by the Dartford Crossing, but now most of these have gone too. On Sundays there is no service on either route, and not even a footway to enable people without a vehicle to get over Dartford Bridge.

So how about the following programme:

  • 1. Improve connections on the Romford-Gravesend corridor to halve journey time (including the extension of Upminster trains to Tilbury Riverside as soon as possible). This would be part of the proposed "Essex Metro".
  • 2. Introduce a bus service, with rail ticketing, between railheads in Essex and Kent such as Harlow Town, Shenfield and Swanley. The latter could cater for almost all of Kent if Hastings line trains were diverted via Swanley on Sundays.
  • 3. Provide new M25 parkway stations at Brentwood and Dartford, and an access to Swanley station from the A20. These would be served by the above bus service.
  • 4. Add on a few spurs to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link schemes to permit through trains between Romford and Gatwick or Guildford via Upminster, Grays (reverse), Ebbsfleet, Swanley, Bromley, Beckenham, Norwood Jn and Croydon.

Simon Norton, 6 Hertford St, Cambridge CB4 3AG.

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