The scandal of our railways

Has there ever been any public policy decision as botched, chaotic and disastrous as the privatisati

‘‘If I could rerun the past,” says the new Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, in his interview on page 16, “I would have tried to pull the plug on rail privatisation in the mid-1990s, because the whole way in which it was done by the Conservatives was so fundamentally flawed.” It is reassuring to hear the New Labour arch-moderniser Lord Adonis echo the settled view of so many on both the left and the right of British politics. Has there ever been any public policy decision as botched, chaotic and disastrous as the privatisation of the railways?

Transport policy affects all of us; Britain, after all, remains a nation of commuters. But politicians on both sides of the divide have failed scandalously to give proper importance to transport and, in particular, to the railways. One need only look at the turnover of transport secretaries in recent years to find an example of this. After 12 years of New Labour, we are, astonishingly, on our 11th transport supremo. Lord Adonis – whose predecessors in the job include now-discredited figures such as John Prescott, Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon – is the fourth transport secretary in three years. Is it any wonder that we are no closer to establishing an “integrated transport policy” than when Prescott first aired this piquant platitude in 1997?

As continental Europe invests in high-speed rail, building new lines, our railways are a mess. Fares are rising fares, services are poorer and there has been a fall in passenger numbers for the first time in two decades.

The recent government takeover of the East Coast main line illustrates how rail management is in a permanent state of crisis. Reimagining transport policy is one of the greatest challenges of government. It will require a minister who can overcome the timidity and bureaucratic incompetence that has stymied past attempts to improve and modernise our dysfunctional railways.

Lord Adonis is passionate in his commitment to change. But will he have enough time to act?