Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
8 April 2002

Great Western rip-off

Transport crisis - A new report reveals the full horror of what happened to our railways

By Francis Beckett

At the height of the tourist season last year, when South Wales and the West Country hoped to recoup some of their losses from BSE and mad-cow disease by attracting tourists, most of Great Western’s train services were late, and nearly half of them were more than ten minutes late.

As a result, people with serious business to do in those regions stopped relying on getting there by train. Already racked by the ills of the countryside, the regions saw themselves becoming peripheral to Europe, as business relocated to places you could get to at a predictable time.

Last summer’s crisis triggered the first ever in-depth investigation of a privatised train-operating company. The report has just come out, and it gives us the miserable day-to-day detail to back up what we all feel instinctively whenever we take a train anywhere. For 18 years, the Tories eviscerated Britain’s railways by starving them of cash and forcing us all on to dangerous and overcrowded motorways. Then, with their last gasp, they drove a stake through the railways’ heart with privatisation. And for five years now, new Labour has sat on its hands, frozen by the terror that the only solutions involve doing two unthinkable things: spending taxpayers’ money and offending the City.

The report comes from the Rail Passengers Committee, a punctiliously non-political body whose top brass are appointed directly by the government. So its language is careful. But its findings are dynamite.

Let’s take the stupid things first. In the old days of British Rail, signallers were allowed to take common-sense decisions, such as giving a crowded commuter train priority over a freight train. That wouldn’t do for the cut and thrust of the bright new competitive rail network, in which signallers have to be even-handed between train-operating companies. So nowadays, while you sit sweating with your fellow commuters, hemmed in and panicked about the appointment you’re missing, you’ll stay motionless on the track and watch a freight train in no particular hurry trundle its stately way through.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

In the old days of British Rail, controllers did uncompetitive things such as getting your connecting service to wait for a few minutes if your train was late. Today, your connecting train is probably run by a different train- operating company, which will be fined for late running if it holds the train for you. So it won’t.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

But this is just the froth. The report looks at the whole history of Great Western (now renamed First Great Western, following a merger) from the time, just after rail privatisation, that it won the franchise in 1996 on the promise to “go for growth and empty the M4”. It took over a line whose reliability was above the passengers charter figure – and in one year, brought it below that figure, where it has remained ever since.

The investigation was satisfied that last summer’s nadir provided the necessary seismic shock to the company, which is belatedly getting to grips with the problems. That would give cause for hope in the future, if the problems were simply of Great Western’s making; but the report points out that the fragmentation of the industry means that the company is largely in the hands of others.

The track, stations and most other infrastructure are owned by Railtrack. Use of them is shared with other train operators, in particular Virgin Cross Country. If there is a problem with a Virgin train, it is likely to make a Great Western train late. The trains are owned by rolling-stock companies, from which Great Western leases them. Even when the company provides its own facilities, it often gets a subcontractor to run them, so that passengers complaining, for example, about high car-park charges are told: not us, guv, you’ve got to talk to the subcontractor.

The report puts it this way: “The privatised railway is a complex series of interfaces, with the train-operating company at the centre.” Great Western “is therefore largely a service organisation managing staff and a complex pattern of interfaces”. Its “principal assets are, literally, its staff and its management skills”. Physical assets are worth little more than £1m, but the turnover is huge – £354m – and pre-tax profits are nearly £43m. Like other train operators, it’s a machine for making money.

The main benefit, supposedly, of bringing in the private sector is “efficiency gains” – or staff cuts, to you and me. Great Western has been operating 40 per cent more trains than before privatisation, with 10 per cent fewer staff. That makes for safety problems, as well as for the late running of trains. For example, there is often only one train despatcher (whose duties include making sure the doors are shut) on duty at Chippenham, and when two trains arrive at once, one of them has to wait until he has finished with the other one.

There is often no one to ask when things go wrong; staff on trains do not always know what is going on; passengers find litter in coaches and dirty and paperless toilets; no one is available to tell you about late platform alterations; travel centres are closed, ticket offices open only at certain times; no one can tell you in advance of a train delay or cancellation. If you have taken a train anywhere in Britain in recent years, you will recognise all these problems. Great Western seems now to have understood that you need more human beings, and has increased its staffing by 20 per cent since last summer.

But when things go wrong, staff are not always told to switch their priorities. They may be busily making sure everyone has paid for a ticket, when they ought to be making sure everyone knows that the train has been cancelled.

And that is because, in the end, it all comes down to money. Britain’s railways were starved of investment for 17 years by train-hating Tories who, as Michael Heseltine once explained, thought everyone ought to aspire to travel in their own cars, where they could control the level of heating to suit themselves. For the past five years, the railways have been starved of money by new Labour instead.

So in the Great Western region, the railway track dates from the 1960s and early 1970s. It is fast approaching the end of its working life, and was never designed to cope with today’s frequency of trains. Two years ago, the passenger watchdog appealed to John Prescott for a major upgrade, but nothing happened. The result, says the report, is that, “in many locations, it cannot reliably support the present level of service . . . let alone any further increase”. The only large-scale investment has been to cater for the Heathrow Express.

Last summer, new 125mph trains were supposed to ply the London-Cardiff route, but they are still not ready. So the trains that used to go to the West Country were switched to the Cardiff route, and some slow, elderly, unreliable trains were brought out of retirement to serve the West Country. Frequent maintenance problems cause trains to be cancelled or to run slower. The sign at Plymouth station saying “London in three hours” has been quietly removed.

The report does not put a figure on the investment needed for the train service to South Wales and the south-west, but we are talking billions of pounds. Other regions, too, need big investment. Yet the only substantial sum the government has found for the railways is £300m to compensate shareholders for losing their money on Railtrack.

Not only did Railtrack lose money, it did not do its job. “The condition of Railtrack’s Great Western Zone begs important questions about the stewardship of the network by Railtrack and the past regulation of Railtrack by the Rail Regulator,” says the report. Railtrack investors are like unsuccessful gamblers who succeed in bullying a gullible casino owner into repaying them all the money they lost.

Unfortunately, the casino owner is being generous with our money, and our train service needs it.