Reverse thrust

Off the Rails

Andrew Murray <em>Verso, 240pp, £14</em>

ISBN 1859846408

Broken Rails


Andrew Murray has produced a mini-masterpiece and done his country an enormous favour. Too much that is written on transport of any kind is overcomplicated, over-lengthy and over-worthy. The fear after Railtrack's recent humiliation is that a combination of uninspiring punditry and distracting war fever will, despite announcements to the contrary, once more allow a postponement of effective reforms. With luck, this book will help stop that happening. In a better world, Aslef union organisers would distribute free copies at mainline stations to weary, humiliated commuters.

Where Murray has scored most is by taking a subject of huge public concern and surgically demystifying it. The book is usefully compact in width and height, making it possible to read even on a Connex cattletruck. His trump card is that of uncluttered, merciless observation. Incensed by his subject, he opens at a thrilling pace that never diminishes. First telling how railways evolved from Victorian shareholders' dream to post-1945 Treasury headache, he shows how the John Major government was propelled into privatisation by would-be profiteers. The transport secretary of the time, John MacGregor, anticipated "market-orientated thrust".

MacGregor and his urges fade from view, their damage done. British Rail becomes, variously, Railtrack (running track and stations), a freight monopoly, three rolling stock companies, 13 track maintenance companies and 25 train-operating franchises (run by rather fewer companies, several better known for bus expertise). There is also a regulator and, by 1999, a Strategic Rail Authority, outlandishly self-proclaimed as aiming to guide rather than command. Many firms subcontract their work to other firms, which subcontract it again. There are plausibly two or three thousand separate outfits helping the network function - or hindering it. No one is in overall charge.

The result has been (amid often generous shareholder dividends and a glut of senior managers coining multimillion-pound jackpots by selling on underpriced tenders slipped their way at privatisation) a collapsing network. Shifts lengthen. Rest breaks are cut, as are corners. Employment insecurity becomes the consistent reality. Staff turnover rockets.

In one daring chapter, worthy of George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, Murray relays testimony from across the industry, from finance managers to platform staff. "Railtrack sees the operation of the railway as a bit of a hindrance to its role," says one. Many who press buttons inside trains and signal boxes find their lot worsening: "It's becoming like a McDonald's job." An overworked driver says he keeps his window open in midwinter "so the draught can keep me awake". Another cannot see through his filthy windscreen. These are, I remind you, those to whom you surrender your safety each time you travel by train. The use of uniformly anonymous quotations would, in most other cases, worry the more level-headed reader. But here, their collective force is explosive.

Murray's solution is renationalisation, as 75 per cent of voters wish. He recommends fusing the existing network fragments - as well as a voice for passengers, freight customers and, whisper it, staff. The generalities promised thus far by embattled ministers may conform to his ideals. Whether the plans will succeed in practice depends on new Labour's ability to deliver functionally capable new public structures, as opposed to frequently recycled public announcements.

Christian Wolmar provides the perfect foil to Murray's slim-line polemic. Broken Rails is a detailed account of nearly two centuries of railway-prompted government headaches, which have been made worse for all politicians by, as Wolmar notes, the network's continuing popularity despite whatever chaos it may undergo. His consistent attention to nuance deserves the highest praise. Few points are made without mention of other studies and analyses countering conclusions that would otherwise provide superficial simplifications of this technically daunting subject area. There is a hint of the Gradgrind school of rail commentary here, but Wolmar reaches the same conclusion as Murray.

The enormous government subsidies promised will, contrary to Thatcherite logic, be more efficiently spent by an institution in public ownership. Both authors - neither of whose work is invalidated by Railtrack folding - will be certain that the war on terrorism must not mask inadequate government action.