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Railwatch 079 - April 1999

Railwatch - Now for some good news

Well we have had the "summit", Mr Blair rightly describing rail privatisation as the biggest scandal inherited by Labour. We have had the Commons select committee's report, again identifying problem areas and suggesting remedies.

The shadow Strategic Rail Authority and the appointment of Sir Alistair Morton — a man to be reckoned with — all adds up to good news.

And Sir Robert Horton is resigning from Railtrack! I feel inclined to relax a little for the first time since 1992 when we started our campaign to question the way privatisation was being developed.

What concerns remain? First, where is the enabling legislation? It's all very well making noises and saying all the right things but let's get something on the statute book.

Second, this whole question of investment worries me still, lots of money spent on stations, lots of hype about regeneration.

Investment on stations runs at about £200,000 a week — and yet the new signalling centre at Willesden (so essential for modernisation of the West Coast route) is not being put forward yet because it costs too much.

The cost of that new building which would house the electronics capable of extending northwards as the work proceeds is around £200,000. That's the cost of one or maybe two weeks of the station regeneration programme. It's also the cost of one private four-bedroom detached house!

I say again that railway investment should be about track and signalling and rolling stock. The railway is about operating trains and giving the public a service, not about seeing if we can sell more pizzas in the new marble halls that will be our stations of the future.

The Strategic Rail Authority must have its hand on the tiller of investment.

Privatisation has so far been about extracting the maximum amount of money from the customer rather than giving service to that customer. The Regulator's ruling against Great Western Trains for charging £1 for telephone bookings is just one example of that.

Turning to the recent safety issue and Railtrack wanting to retain its safety and standards organisation which it seems is still being debated, there is no doubt in my mind and never has been that rail safety and standards need to be away from Railtrack itself.

I recently saw a Railtrack information document which contains statements such as: "Staff should be guarded in their dealings with the inspectorate" and again, "if there is any question of an individual being interviewed on some formal basis, then legal advice should always be obtained".

Within BR we had a dignified, full and frank exchange of views with the inspecting officers and we behaved, both staff and management, with openness without the help of today's obligatory and ubiquitous lawyer.

Allowing myself a final personal comment, I do find myself becoming annoyed by the many people of my own generation who attend the countless seminars and conferences, lectures and debates in which people explain what is wrong and what should be done to put it right.

Many of those people who lauded the importance of putting the customer first have merely functioned as quislings for the previous government in putting profits and shareholders' interests before those of the customer.

They actually aided and abetted the destruction of a unique blend of happiness and collective responsibility and public service in the railway — evolved over 150 years, the first 100 under private enterprise — in as many weeks.

Behind them they have left the shambles we have today — with customer complaints now running at over a million a year.

Those still at work, with responsible jobs within the industry, have my fullest support and my sympathy.

Peter Rayner

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