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18 October 1999

Don’t mention public ownership

In opposition, Labour MPs were falling over themselves to condemn the sale of the railway network. N

By Ian Jack

On the evening of the Ladbroke Grove smash, John Prescott was asked on BBC2’s Newsnight if he thought that railway privatisation could be blamed in any way. “No,” he said. This seemed to me an interesting answer. As the cabinet minister “responsible” for railways (even if only in the same way that the Department of Trade and Industry is “responsible” for Tesco), he could and perhaps should have resorted to the usual bromides: that this would be for the inquiry to ascertain; that it was too early to say; that, with the dead newly dead and the bereaved fresh in their bereavement, it was not the time for speculation.

But Prescott said “No”, with quite inappropriate decisiveness. Watching him, I wondered if he really believed it. Perhaps he did; engine drivers have been disobeying signals on both privately and publicly owned railways since about 1830, soon after one of Prescott’s cabinet predecessors, William Huskisson, was run over by a locomotive and killed at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line. Lapses in human behaviour can have many causes. On the other hand, perhaps he said “No” because he really wanted to say “Yes”, the way one resists temptation (Voluptuary: “Come up and see me some time?” Vicar: “No!”). Perhaps he knew – had been told – that he must not at any time in any interview admit to even the faint possibility. Because, if privatisation were the cause, perhaps its opposite could be the cure. People – focus groups, voters – might begin to want it, this unspeakable opposite, p****c o*******p or n*************n, just like in those backward European countries with their safer, better railways. And what an inconvenience to the Blairite shining path of modernity that would be.

I would like to like Prescott. It’s often said by public transport lobbyists that “his heart is in the right place” (even though his foot may be elsewhere, pushing a Jag pedal to the floor) and that he has been trussed and gagged by Downing Street and its stubborn preoccupation with that half-being, half-man, half-biscuit, “the motorist”. On the other hand, a daft idea has got around in liberal circles that he must be exempted from criticism because he is or was working class and it ain’t his fault if he can’t speak proper. All I can say on the evidence of one meeting is that he seemed as vibrant with self-regard as any other ambitious politician. He talked too much and listened not at all.

This was when the Tories were scampering ahead with railway privatisation. Was there any Labour MP who did not then predict it would end in chaos? I can’t remember any. John Prescott and his aides most certainly did. Tony Blair, in a moment he must prefer to forget, promised that his government would restore a “publicly owned, publicly accountable” railway. I was editing the Independent on Sunday at the time, and Labour politicians were falling over themselves to be quoted, to point out the many flaws in the rushed legislation, to say what a scandal it all was (“perhaps the biggest political scandal of the nineties,” according to Blair). We devised a series – “The Great Railway Disaster”, written by the admirable Christian Wolmar – which demonstrated, example by example, the consequences for the travelling public. The series had as its rubric a small Victorian engraving of a steam locomotive plunging off the tracks. Truer, it seems to be turning out, than we knew.

Of course, the we-told-you-so temptation must be resisted. Nobody wants to be seen to be warming their hands at the funeral pyre of carriage H. But the shyness of the doomsayers, now that they’re in government, is a tragic sight. It has been left to a former Tory MP, Hugh Dykes, to write the angriest piece by a politician. Dykes, like many in his party and, according to contemporary opinion polls, most of the country, had opposed railway privatisation. In the Guardian, Dykes wrote that it had always been “fascinating to observe that new Labour ministers have rarely sought to make political capital out of the defeated Tories’ discomfiture over such a controversial and unpopular piece of legislation”.

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He wondered why and came up with the answer (I paraphrase) that it would be too obvious a humbug to ridicule the other lot when you had no intention of remedying things, either because (a) the remedy cost too much and was too legally complicated, or (b) you didn’t want to upset new-found allies in the business community, or (c) both. Tories like him, he wrote, had tried to persuade Labour’s then shadow ministers to consider a manifesto commitment – “to no avail”.

Instead, criticisms and confessions of failure have come from unlikely, non-political quarters. Who was it who said on television a week after the crash that “the fundamental problem [with safety] is the fragmentation of the railway industry”? Answer, and knock me down with a feather: the chief executive of Railtrack, Gerald Corbett, the man nominally in charge of signal 109 and every other signal and piece of track, salary with bonus £409,000 a year, as mentioned by Kirsty Wark when ticking him off for his non-appearance on Newsnight as though he had been subpoenaed to a court of law. And where can we hear the calmest and least contestable judgement of how privatisation has meddled with safety? Answer: at the inquiry into the Southall rail crash (seven dead) of 19 September 1997, when a Swansea to Paddington express collided with a freight train that was crossing its path. Two years later, when the inquiry began, its counsel, Ian Burnett QC, noted during his opening speech that before June 1996, a high-speed passenger train would always have been given priority over a freight. Why had this changed? Burnett: “The policy was changed as a result of an initiative from the rail regulator which was designed to achieve commercial equality between all train operators, irrespective of the type of service they ran.”

“Private” and “unsafe” are not necessarily linked. The Great Western Railway, the company that built the line through Southall and Ladbroke Grove, was one of the safest railways in the world. As early as 1906 it introduced a signalling system called Automatic Train Control (ATC), warning drivers by a siren in the cab if a signal had been passed. For 50 years from 1890, no major accident occurred on the Great Western’s 3,000 miles of line. Then, one night in November 1940, the Penzance sleeper came off the rails at Norton Fitzwarren, near Taunton, killing 27 of the 900 passengers on board. The train had been diverted to a relief line, parallel to the main, to let a fast mail pass. The driver misread the signals and steamed on, taking his train at speed on to the safety spur, where it ran out of track and overturned. A safety spur – a junction that leads nowhere – is an old and now largely disused device; without it, the sleeper and the mail would probably have collided and the casualties increased. The Thames Turbo train that caused the Ladbroke Grove collision didn’t have the benefit of one. As to the train’s ATC, the driver, as at Paddington last week, seems to have ignored it. The inquiry heard that his house in London had recently been bombed.

After nationalisation, the lines formerly owned by the Great Western saw no other serious accident until the derailment at West Ealing (ten dead) in 1973. In his history of railway accidents, Red for Danger, the late L T C Rolt tried to explain this enviable record. The Great Western pioneered ATC and built lines, expensively, that reduced the risk of conflicting movements between trains. But, Rolt wrote, the most efficient safety devices and the most rigid rules cannot alone make a railway great. H Raynar Wilson, in his analysis of railway accident statistics, came to the conclusion that the remarkable safety record of the Great Western was partly due to the efficiency and esprit de corps of the staff.

Esprit de corps! There’s a thought. Seen any of it around recently? Today it goes by the name of “culture”, as in “we need to restore safety culture to our railways”. In a public service that has been ignored, belittled, starved of funds, taken apart and recklessly smashed about, that will not be easy.

The Labour government has been in power for more than two years. Until Ladbroke Grove, it had done almost nothing to repair the damage of privatisation, never mind start on the task of providing public transport systems that are an improvement on those it inherited. It needs to feel culpability and shame. John Prescott’s “No” on Newsnight was not a promising start.