The wrong track

Theatre - Michael Portillo takes an uncomfortable return trip to his days as transport minister

Before the curtain went up on David Hare's play about Britain's railways, a chatty lady in the next seat said to me, more playfully than aggressively: "You're brave coming here. Your government butchered the railways." I was starting to tell her that the years before privatisation were no golden age when the dimming lights ended our exchange. I'd wanted to explain that as minister for transport, when the railways were publicly owned, I had seen them bring out the bodies from crashes at Clapham, Purley and Milngavie (all within four months), and that I had sacked the chiefs of London Transport and London Underground (both nationalised industries) because of the management neglect that preceded the King's Cross fire.

But as a minister I saw other things, too. Hare's play reveals uncomfortable truths. He shows how John Major adopted a privatisation plan that few even in government believed could work. As one of the play's characters says, it's analogous to a restaurant where the cooks, waiters and washers-up have different employers.

If the early scenes about the Tory years were the most difficult for me personally, they left me unprepared for Hare's harrowing portrayal of how the crashes at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar affected the survivors and the bereaved. Their verbatim remarks - taken from conversations with Hare or from witness statements at the Cullen inquiry - form the basis of the play's script. Richard Norton-Taylor's Justifying War (which draws solely on the transcripts of the Hutton inquiry) made it clear that when audiences know they are hearing the truth, they hang on every word. This is also the case with The Permanent Way. Non-fictionalised accounts of horrific accidents, bereavement and the outrages of officialdom tend to move us deeply.

This is a fine piece of theatre well performed by actors from the Out of Joint company. As the play moved from initial humour to sustained anguish, I don't suppose mine was the only dry throat in the theatre, or that only former Tory ministers were having difficulty swallowing.

In this necessarily static play, we are nudged from one disaster to the next by the shuffling sound of a railway depar-ture board projected behind the actors. It shows us the calling points of each train that did not reach its destination, emphasising that every disaster begins in a routine way. Then, horrifyingly, the back projection places the audience on the track at Hatfield, the overhead wires extending from the screen across the auditorium. The GNER locomotive hurtles towards us, tipping on to its side, demolishing the trackside gantries, with carriages behind it bouncing about like skittles, the theatre filled with the roar of tearing metal. It's a shocking moment and a remarkable example of modern stagecraft.

The Permanent Way dwells on the chasm that opened up after Ladbroke Grove between the survivors and the bereaved, with the latter proving more militant, even vengeful. After the Clap-ham disaster, a mild-mannered lady who'd lost her brother in the crash spoke to me several times. A year later she shocked me by saying how much she yearned for justice for the murder of her brother. The immediate cause of his death was the failure of a signalling engineer to reconnect a wire correctly at the end of his shift. I believe that if your job doesn't put you at risk of killing people, should you make a mistake, be very thankful and do not rush to judge others. In Hare's play, the Rector of Hatfield says: "Obsession with blame debases us." I say: "Amen."

It is interesting, then, that the former chief executive of Railtrack Gerald Corbett, a man who was hissed at during public inquiries, emerges quite well. I don't think that's just my wishful thinking (he's been a friend since Cambridge). Events take their toll on him and he ends up philosophically reflecting on how his personality, even his spirit, has developed: "It's been hugely positive in a human sense."

Nor do the Tories come out worse than Labour (or might that also be a failure of objectivity?). The Conservatives are chastised for being ideological, obsessed with private ownership and indifferent. Since then, four major disasters have occurred and, despite several inquiries, seemingly nothing has been learnt. Except that, after the most recent catastrophe at Potters Bar, there has been no inquiry, no admission of responsibility and no compensation. Nina, an elderly lady injured and widowed in that crash (based on the novelist Nina Bawden, who lost her husband in the disaster), laments: "I never believed in corruption before . . . It's in everyone's interests to do nothing: the government, Railtrack, Jarvis." A serving RAF officer who survived the crash and knelt over Nina's unconscious body in the wreckage comments: "They'd love it if she died."

In the stunned silence that followed the play, the woman next to me pointedly didn't restart our conversation. It was just as well. I really wouldn't have known what to say to her.

The Permanent Way is booking at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 30 March

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Those WMDs - The blame game