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.

Show Hide image

SRSLY #13: Take Two

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, the recent BBC adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie, and reminisce about teen movie Shakespeare retelling She’s the Man.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on Audioboom, Stitcher, RSS and  SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The podcast is also on Twitter @srslypod if you’d like to @ us with your appreciation. More info and previous episodes on

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On Macbeth

Ryan Gilbey’s review of Macbeth.

The trailer for the film.

The details about the 2005 Macbeth from the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series.


On Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie

Rachel Cooke’s review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Sarah Hughes on Cider with Rosie, and the BBC’s attempt to create “heritage television for the Downton Abbey age”.


On She’s the Man (and other teen movie Shakespeare retellings)

The trailer for She’s the Man.

The 27 best moments from the film.

Bim Adewunmi’s great piece remembering 10 Things I Hate About You.


Next week:

Anna is reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Your questions:

We loved talking about your recommendations and feedback this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 



See you next week!

PS If you missed #12, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.