The perils of the private

It was no part of the brief of Lord Cullen's inquiry on the Paddington rail disaster, published last Tuesday, to consider the merits of privatisation. One must go deep into the report's tedious technical detail, therefore, to unearth anything like the true story. And one point should be acknowledged at once. Railtrack, in its handling of the dangerous signal and track layout at Paddington, showed many common public sector failings. Again and again, Railtrack employees at various levels failed to take action that they knew was necessary, because no instructions had been received from above. They played by the rule book, rather than by the evidence of their own eyes and brains. "Action groups", as they were laughably called, proliferated; the members of any one group always assumed that action was the responsibility of some other group. As Gerald Corbett, then the company's chief executive, put it: "The culture is one in which decisions are delegated upwards. . . People have tended to manage reactively, not proactively."

But when it comes to safety, all that privatisation has done is to add the failings of the commercial sector to those of the public sector. In his investigation of the Hatfield disaster (see The Crash that Stopped Britain, published by Granta), Ian Jack observed that it "arose from a quagmire of divided responsibility and incompetence, inspired by an ideology that placed adversarial money bargaining over human and technical co-operation, in which 'the contract' was divine". Lord Cullen's report shows that exactly the same could be said of Paddington.

Proposals to alter the track in the interests of safety - so that, on some lines, trains could travel in one direc-tion only - were blocked because, said Railtrack's operational planning manager, "we shall be unable to honour existing contracts" with the train operators. The operations and safety director for First Great Western (one of whose trains was involved in the crash) told the inquiry that she found Railtrack "unresponsive to our requests for information, for action"; moreover, communication between signallers and drivers, who now work for different companies, "was sometimes non-existent, sometimes ineffective". Thames Trains (the other company involved in the crash) failed to disclose crucial information during a safety audit; to the inquiry, it implicitly admitted that, except in answer to a direct question, it would not disclose anything to its disadvantage.

And so on and so on. It is true that the safety record of the privatised railway, statistically, is so far no worse than that of British Rail; it is also true that rail travel remains much safer than road travel. But this counting of bodies and weighing of relative risks is pointless. A private motorist who knowingly drove a defective vehicle would be prosecuted; it would be no defence that he had carried out some "risk assessment" and concluded that the cost of repairing the vehicle was disproportionate to the chances of it actually killing anybody. Left to themselves, commercial companies will put profits before safety. As Mr Jack records, between 1992 and 1997, the number of workers on Britain's railways fell from 159,000 to 92,000, and those employed to maintain and renew infrastructure from 31,000 to fewer than 19,000. Meantime, the number of train journeys increased. The Cullen report found that Railtrack's experts on signal visibility failed repeatedly to consider action on Paddington because they were "grossly overstretched". Safety is labour-intensive; but all the pressures are for cutting costs.

The perils of privatisation are not unique to the railways. In 1999, a gas explosion in Larkhall, Scotland, killed a family of four. Now, it is alleged that the failure of Transco, the owner of the gap pipe network, to renew old metal pipes may be responsible. The company laid off 1,000 engineers in 1997; now, it admits it is critically short of people needed to maintain safety. Transco, like Railtrack, is a private monopoly, and a private monopoly is the most lethal form of capitalism, because, unlike a company that has to compete, it does not need to factor in public fears, prejudices, preferences and scruples. Its focus is solely on the balance sheet; it sees everything through the eyes of accountants. It may have to cope with regulators and politicians, but they are much easier to fool than customers in a competitive market.

As Jackie Ashley argues on page 8, there is no magic management dust in the private sector. It is genuine commercial competition that makes a difference, not privatisation itself. When exposed to competition, a previously private monopoly - say, British Telecom - flounders as badly as any public sector body. Bogus markets, as attempted in the rail industry, in education and in health, are worse than no markets. Ministers should bear all this in mind before embarking on further adventures with the private sector.

There's profit in bad behaviour

Is it possible that the cricket authorities are secretly rather proud that the fans now wish to invade their grounds and let off firecrackers? After all, at the average county match, attended by two old-age pensioners and three dogs, it is hard to muster a queue for the bar, let alone a pitch invasion; and the only smoke is likely to come from a sleeping spectator's lighted pipe, carelessly left among the sandwiches in his plastic carrier bag. A sport that requires a hundred police and crowd-restraining fences, even if only plastic ones, has truly arrived. And those who run cricket cannot complain. They have introduced a plethora of one-day internationals, with coloured clothing, jaunty music, floodlights and other previously unheard-of excitements. All professional sports must now measure up against football, and the chief characteristic of football is bad behaviour, on the field and off it. The sporting authorities will continue to issue grave, disapproving statements. Don't believe a word of them.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England