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Railways - History and Future  

1) Green Energy - How to not use it
2) Railways - History and Future
3) A Silly Story
4) Cinderella
5) Croess
6) The House
7) How to Control Your Government
8) After Expenses: Is it time to abolish the House of Commons?
9) Say "Yes" to the EU
10) Dihydrogen Monoxide - An Appeal
11) The Train Operator's Guide to Getting Students Drunk in a Brewery
12) The Well
Department of Comment, Satire & Tripe
A History of the British Railway

From 1997 until 2010 Her Majesty's Government was made up of a party which traditionally had no problems with nationalisation and cheerily took over the assets of every private company in sight in the years after the Second World War, but never had the confidence to bite the bullet and fulfill a 1997 cast-iron promise to bring rail transport back in house. The rail industry had been the last of the big nationalised bodies to leave the public sector and return to largely private ownership during the tenure of the previous Government between 1979 and 1997.

This sell-off was in many ways a final announcement that Britain had recovered from the Second World War, although as it was 40 years later it might have been better for the former world leader in pretty much everything not to shout about it so much. The recovery also seemed to be a bit over-anticipated given that the mass-sell-off of British Gas, British Telecom, British Airways, British Leyland, British Transport Hotels, etc. was promptly followed by a deep recession which ended with the end of an attempt to match European currencies. After that everything got better and the Government was able to turn its attention to dealing with the last leg of Privatisation.

British Rail, as it had become, had not had the easiest of careers in the public sector. Four big railway companies - the Big Four - were lumped together on the 1st of January 1948 to form one crumbling edifice which represented the broken remains of a 19th century transport empire, destroyed by six years of war and three of cash shortages. The British Transport Commission had duly moved the road vehicle fleet of buses and lorries to the road sector, put the ferries into a ferry group and taken the airline which the Big Four had developed between them (Imperial Airways) and handed it over to British European Airlines. The railways were allowed to buy the cast-off military locomotives and rolling stock to help keep them going, while costly experiments which the Big Four had decided to invest in just before nationalisation were sidelined in favour of some new steam locomotives - everyone knew how those worked, they were cheap to build, and they offered a massive job creation scheme in building and maintaining them - although shared parts, similar construction and easy access to the moving bits made them much easier to work than their predecessors. In 1953 the lorries were de-regulated and allowed to compete freely with the railways; BEA was encouraged to do the same. It is probably no coincidence that 1954 was the last ever year in which the British rail network made a profit.

In 1955 the Modernisation Plan promised change. Steam was already being replaced for shunting purposes, six diesel and two gas-turbine locomotives were testing internal combustion for larger trains, some branch lines had been worked by diesel railcars since the 1930s, the Southern Electric network had provided an electrification programme on a scale not seen before or since - even the now-proposed schemes are dwarfed by the size of a system still ferrying a half-a-million people into London daily - and the Woodhead route across the Pennines had gone electric the previous year. The Modernisation Plan would use everything gained from these innovations as well as some from elsewhere to carry out a complete upgrade of the rail network. The French system of high-voltage electrification was to be used as standard except on the Southern, where the pre-First World War third-rail system still prevails - Woodhead had been electrified to a Netherlands system and so was declared obsolete. New sheds would be built for the diesels and electrics, reflecting the problems had with the early diesels when they lived in steam sheds. Although the locomotive fleet was going to shrink to take advantage of more efficient diesel and electric locomotives and multiple units, there would still be an element of like-for-like replacement. Every region of British Railways drew up a few small Pilot Scheme fleets, providing 174 new diesels for testing.

It was all very exciting.

At this stage the Government stepped in and said that financial losses were becoming too large, so could the pace of modernisation be stepped up please? The railways, keen to oblige, duly made production orders for the prototype fleets. Few of these fleets had any alterations between production and prototype design, since the prototypes had barely turned a wheel in service before the frames of the production fleet were laid down. Four prototype fleets did not receive follow-on orders (three are now extinct). A few improvements were made between prototype and production, mostly due to alterations to the specification. When the fleets entered squadron service, problems were rapidly identified in almost every fleet before the end of what would have been the shake-down period - but after it was too late to do anything about it. Three fleets had appalling visibility from the single cab, four were overweight, two suffered from major engine faults and two others were simply too unreliable. Two fleets suffered from no problems at the time but would now been seen as chronically underpowered. Meanwhile, large sums of money were spent on new marshalling yards for traffic which had gone and had no reason to come back - by the time the first yard opened, the traffic which could have used it was trundling happily along one of the many new roads which the Government was building. Electrification work was begun on the West Coast Mainline (WCML) but then put on hold by the Minister of Transport while he built a few more motorways (almost personally - Ernest Marples had owned a large road building firm until he became Minister of Transport, after which it was transferred to his wife. When the Tories lost power he hung around quietly for a few years and then left suddenly for Monaco in 1975 to avoid argument over his taxes). The response of BEA to electrification was that they would still take passengers from the railways.

By 1962 it was realised that the Modernisation Plan might have been a step in the right direction, but it hadn't been broad enough and had been followed by a rather large pause for breath. Most steam-age practices were still very much alive, the new diesels were built and operated on a similar basis to steam locomotives, few improvements had been made to scheduling and rural branch lines seemed remarkably similar to when they opened (a couple on the Southern Region were still using original locomotives and stock). Indeed, the Southern had almost made a point of re-using old parts in their new trains where possible and specified Victorian interiors for many of their new multiple units, which were then painted in an all-over green intended to be as uninspiring as possible. The Government's solution was to promise more money in exchange for cost-cutting, and Dr. Richard Beeching was seconded from ICI at a cost of £24,000 per year to cut costs.

His cost-cutting was notorious but did lead to some much better loadings on rural branch lines (trains which were likely to be well-loaded and calling at busy stations could be distinguished by the "Last Train" headboard) and removed a lot of links which served nobody. The cuts also removed some links which ran through some of the country's best scenery and - most controversial of all - several rather useful cross-country rail links. A few lines survived because they went through marginal constituencies and so were of considerable political value, while a couple of judicious bits of moving railways from their "home region" into a traditionally very hostile region once owned by a competitor got rid of some duplicated routes without any help from Beeching - most notably the London and South Western "Withered Arm" (London Waterloo - Sailsbury - Exeter - Plymouth), which was handed over to the former Great Western Railway and amputated beyond Exeter, and the Great Central Railway (London Marylebone - Rugby - Leicester - Nottingham - Sheffield), which was handed over to the former London, Midland and Scottish Railway and quietly turned into a rural branch line, which was then shut. Once this was sorted out a small amount of money was made available for the electrification of the West Coast Main Line from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, the introduction of "Merry-Go-Round" coal trains which could load and unload without stopping, the Freightliner container service and a rebranding involving repainting all the trains in BR corporate blue with a tidy-up of the stations and the launch of a nice new logo - the "arrows of indecision", the "barbed wire" logo or the "double arrow" logo, depending on what you want to call it. For what was spent the results were quite good - the logo rapidly became the most recognised symbol in the country, much to the annoyance of firms like the Ford Motor Company. Meanwhile several people pointed out that BR could save £24,000 per year and work much better by sacking the Chairman.

West Coast electrification was finished in the 1970s. A few years previously, BR had been refused funding for a new high-speed rail line so they were going to have to make the best of what they had. A group of boffins at the Railway Technical Centre (RTC) in Derby began mucking around with Leyland gas turbines, old coaches and freight wagons to produce a high-speed tilting train ultimately designed to run on one of the world's most testing intercity railways - the increasingly busy West Coast. As the project showed signs of stalling, some other boffins, led by Terry Miller, designed a High-Speed Diesel Train (HSDT) to act as a stop-gap until the Advanced Passenger Train Experimental (APT-E) set was ready.

The HSDT was released just weeks before APT-E. Both were blacked by the unions until a cab redesign was agreed for any further builds to allow two drivers to ride in the cab at over 100mph (HSDT had a maximum of 125 and APT-E a theoretical maximum of 155). Both went on to score impressive records - APT-E achieved 152mph on the Great Western Main Line with peak speeds being achieved as it passed Didcot station in a grey-and-blue blur, while the HSDT reached 141mph on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) north of York. But there was no race between the two to become the next generation express, because HSDT just needed some problems ironing out and a cab redesign before going into production, while APT was at the experimental stage.

With the first HST sets rolling off the production line in late 1975, complete with their familiar noses, the famous blue, yellow and grey livery and the title of IC125 (and with the prototype's "D" dropped), the RTC was under pressure to produce a prototype APT. This was done to the original schedule despite testing having been put back by a year due to the union refusing to drive the set. The HST entered regular passenger service in 1976 on the Western Region and set the world diesel record of 143mph on the ECML shortly afterwards. Some years later a shortened set fixed the world diesel record at 148.5mph, where it will stay. There is no competition for it at present and this record marked the zenith of diesel traction, which is now on its way out (except in Britain). Meanwhile electric traction was being fronted by the WCML Class 87s, with a top speed of 110mph and poorer aerodynamic performance than a brick, and APT-P (P standing for Prototype), which acheived 163.4mph on test.

It was all very exciting.

At this stage the Government stepped in and insisted that the new train be pressed into service, before it was ready, in December 1981. The freezing winter did nothing for the reliability of the train, and the fact that BR lovingly wined and dined the journalists before letting them travel ensured that, by the time they got off the train at Euston 401 miles and just under four hours later, they all felt thoroughly sick. The hospitality of BR ensured that a lot of scathing reports hit the press the next morning.

APT was seen as BR's future, but it never could do anything right after that. By 1984 the project appeared to be dead and the plug was pulled. One set was stored at Crewe and later preserved. One went to Derby, where it was tested and dismantled. The only set to routinely carry passengers found itself working relief trains from its base in Glasgow, from where it was sold for scrap when the fleet was axed in 1987.

BR instead gathered up everything it had learned from APT and tried to do things with it. Improved suspension and braking have gone into every train since. High speed pantograph technology (for collecting electricity from overhead wires) proved useful internationally. The tilt technology was sold abroad (Abroad has since kindly sold it back to BR's successors). One little tweak - ensuring that the tilt did not try to compensate fully for every curve - eliminated the nausea issue and tilt has worked perfectly ever since. Other little innovations and improvements were generally distributed around the fleet and when the ECML electrification required new trains to be built, the new sets featured provision for tilt and had a general feel of being the production APT - although they were called the IC225s. A sort of diesel APT came in the form of the Express Sprinter fleet, which has bodysides which lean slightly inwards suggesting a vague ambition for a small amount of tilt. The Express Sprinter was the culmination of 1980s Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) designs, with the final fleet being Class 159, built for the remains of the "Withered Arm" in 1991, which was everything a small cross-country DMU could want to be - fast, comfortable, and consistently top of the reliability tables.

The Great Western commuter routes and the remains of the Great Central were equipped with modern "Turbo" trains in the early 1990s while the electric version, the Networker (or Notworker, depending on your view), took over the East Coast and some Southeastern commuter traffic. BR then felt it was time to go back to where they had started - the WCML. Electrification in the 1960s hadn't done much more than stick the wires up and replace the signals. Now half the signal boxes were falling down, Birmingham New Street station was a national joke, the huge roof at Rugby needed a massive overhaul and Euston needed refreshing. The cancellation of APT had left the WCML with some impressive Class 90s working "turn and turn about" with the 87s but little else - so just because a newer and more powerful (albeit less reliable) design had joined the WCML did not mean that schedules could be streamlined. There wasn't much option for that anyway, as the maximum speed was still 110mph and the core of the British railway network was gently falling apart at the seams. The proposal was a fleet of new, 150mph Class 93s (which looked a bit like Eurostars) with big new coaches running on a re-generated railway, followed by electrification of the Midland Mainline and Great Western routes, which could then be topped off by rebuilding the Withered Arm and generally modernising the Southern Region. This could all be carried out over the next 30 years and could produce a quite impressive railway.

It was all very exciting.

At this stage the Government stepped in and said that BR was really being rather blinkered, was an inefficient and old-fashioned dinosaur, was increasingly out of step with everything (being the last surviving nationalised industry, although it had sold things like Sealink (the ferry operations), the hotel chain and the Vale of Rheidol Light Railway (the last BR steam operation) some ten years earlier) and generally needed refreshing, tidying up and selling off to the private sector. The idea of selling BR as a whole was rejected, as was the Prime Minister's idea that the railways should be returned to their position under the Big Four or something similar. It was the Treasury who hit on the super idea of selling off the tracks, the passenger trains, the right to operate passenger trains and the freight operators separately. Everyone who had worked in the rail industry would be persuded to retire. The resultant clean sweep, cost-cutting competition, fresh ideas, big private brands and co-operation with an EU directive demanding open access on Europe's railways would solve everybody's problems and eliminate the need to pay BR £1,000,000,000 every year in subsidy.

So Intercity 250, as the new trains for the WCML had been dubbed, was cancelled. 46 high-powered electric Class 92s were ordered because they were needed for the Channel Tunnel. Railtrack took over the tracks from BR and drew up new regulations on what was allowed to run on the railways with little reference to what had been there before and no reference to the Class 92s. Rules on useful things like couplings were thrown out of the window as irrelevant and old hat. The quite successful Railfreight group was divided into Loadhaul, Mainline and Transrail. The dust settled a week before the 1997 General Election, to reveal a new railway consisting of BR (still operating Railfreight Distribution until EWS was allowed to buy it and looking after all the abandoned viaducts and tunnels which nobody else wanted), English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (the main freight operator with an American background, who bought Loadhaul, Mainline and Transrail and glued them back together), Freightliner (a management buyout of Freightliner), Direct Rail Services (still in Government ownership and tasked with carting spent nuclear fuel to Sellafield while attracting massive enthusiast interest by using examples of the first type of locomotive delivered under the Modernisation Plan), three rolling stock owners (Porterbrook, Angel Trains and Eversholt Leasing - known as the ROSCOs) and 25 Train Operating Companies (TOCs) - not forgetting the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, the Office of the Rail Regulator, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and National Rail, who inherited the famous logo.

The first development under privatisation came when Chiltern Trains began to re-build the former Great Central/Great Western route after years of decay. The second was the announcement of the West Coast Route Modernisation (WCRM), which should finish sometime. The third was Labour's decision to backtrack on re-nationalising the railways. The fourth was South West Trains shedding so many excess drivers that they had to start cancelling trains and ultimately ended up offering a day of free travel on their network as compensation for everyone. It was at this point that it was realised that BR had already cut costs down to the bone and it was impossible for the railways to come for less than £1billion every year from the Treasury without a massive cash injection. This injection would, like it or not, have to come from the Government.

As the last years of the second Millennium rolled by it became rather evident that Open Access was not going very well - only the new operator Hull Trains had really taken advantage of it. The money for the WCRM was being spent although work was yet to start. Railtrack, however, had cancelled practically all other projects and route renewals and was devoting its time to trying to dig itself out of the hole which it was rapidly realising the WCRM was, while simultaneously defending itself from allegations of involvement in the Ladbrooke Grove rail crash, where 31 people were killed after a driver missed a hard-to-see signal and took his Turbo into a 120mph head-on collision with a HST set on the approaches to London Paddington. Yet the period was optimistic with the Government still hoping that it could be made to work and the organisations involved being allowed to get on with things - a Golden Age of Privatisation. Each era of railway history had a Golden Age and each Golden Age ended suddenly; Pre-Grouping finished with the First World War, Grouping ended with the Second; BR's ended in privatisation. Privatisation's was terminated when a Great North Eastern Railway IC225 set left the East Coast Mainline on a broken rail on the 17th October 2000.

Hatfield was a strange accident. It killed only four people; a low number for a fatal rail crash, with most taking out seven or more and being greeted with brief uproar, but forgotten within a few weeks. Quintinshill killed over 200 in 1917 yet left little legacy; Harrow, while harrowing at the time with 163 dead and coaching stock piled high in Harrow and Wealdstone station, was cleared rapidly and again left little change in the rail network, which was already producing safety equipment to prevent accidents caused by crew being completely distracted and missing danger signals - this equipment, called the Automatic Warning System, involves the large yellow blocks between the rails on the approach to signals. Broken rails were hardly new and an express train on the West Coast had been derailed by one in the 1980s at Bushey, on the outskirts of London. The two accidents were very similar - in both cases the locomotive was left on the rails and in both cases the train struck a catenary post. At Bushey the supporting girder collapsed, but at Hatfield the flimsier post ripped the buffet car apart and killed four passengers. It was these fatalities which got the attention of the media and the now more powerful Health and Safety Executive - both parties wanted reasons and both parties wanted blood. HSE shut the ECML for three weeks while they carefully poked at everything, examining the twisted remains of the rail so they could find out why it had broken (a question which any engineer and much of the railway press were quite capable of answering) and while at Bushey the Class 87 locomotive had left under its own power for a general check-up, at Hatfield the Class 91 locomotive was loaded onto a lorry and taken to Crewe for a thorough examination. The accident and the associated fallout revertebrated around everything connected to the railway industry - it shook the Government, it created distrust with HSE, it slashed passenger numbers and it hurled Railtrack into headless chicken mode - admittedly unsurprising, as it was now expected to produce a solution to broken rails immediately. There was a fairly effective one, but it had forgotten what it was.

So Railtrack "solved" the problem by imposing 20mph speed limits on large swathes of the rail network as it admitted to having no idea as to what condition the track was in. Floods imposed a few more and 2001 was opened by another accident on the ECML, killing 10, when a Land Rover drove off the side of a main road and onto the railway after the driver went to sleep at the wheel. A brand new Freightliner diesel and almost all of an IC225 set were written off. The electric locomotive - this time at the back, as an IC225 is a push-pull train - had only just returned to service after the Hatfield accident, having been left without a scratch and not even derailed on both occasions, leading to an internal shriek of panic about it being jinxed. It was rushed off, overhauled and renumbered. Meanwhile, Railtrack was pleased to be able to blame the car driver and scream about the Highways Agency's total indifference to the incident (little has been done to prevent a repeat) while it tried to sort out what a set of points were supposed to look like, since neither it or its many contractors had a clue.

It was all getting very exciting.

At this stage the Government decided that it had had enough and, while the world was still reeling from the fallout of 9/11 (and the Department for Transport (DfT) had kindly decided not to use the opportunity to bury bad news on the same day), the 1st anniversary of Hatfield was celebrated by putting Railtrack into administration, relieving a large number of people of their fairly valuable shares in the company with no compensation. The aggro promptly turned off Railtrack and the new Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) and began to make Stephen Byers feel rather uncomfortable. Too uncomfortable, in fact, to complete the job by returning Railtrack to the public sector and wind down its intensive use of contractors by taking the contracts in-house when they expired - thus ensuring that Labour were as implicated in Privatisation as the Tories. After the Potters Bar accident (caused when a Jarvis-maintained set of points collapsed under a Networker passing at 100mph, killing 10) he resigned. Jarvis sat around blaming it on sabotage, although this was made more difficult when an IC225 derailed while leaving London Kings Cross over a Jarvis-maintained set of points. The Transport brief, which had briefly been a glorious opportunity for Labour ministers to score points on how brilliant things were going without doing any work, was now back to being a career-killing job which was felt to need a "safe pair of hands". The unlucky new Secretary of State for Transport would have to cope with Network Rail, which came with £10billion of debt from buying Railtrack, plus grumbling TOCs, plus a couple of under-performing TOCs, plus the Cross Country upgrade, plus irritated Freight Operating Companies, plus a non-working system, plus rubbish contractors, with the ruins of the WCRM and its promise of an impossible dream of 140mph on a railway built in 1835 to top everything else for good measure.

The safe pair of hands was Alistair Darling. It is hard to remember anything notable which was achieved during his tenure, apart from the fact that Transport ceased to be an issue of any electoral interest (despite the fact that everybody needs transport for something every day, even if they aren't going to work, feeling ill, unemployed, at war or attending school - all of which are covered by departments which are seen as more important). Darling cancelled several light-rail projects, scrapped the short-lived SRA, rejected big investment, cut bits off grand schemes, gave franchises to the company who offered to pay him the most money, had stupid ideas (such as suggesting that the box for the new Thameslink station should be put in under London St Pancras while there was a hole in the ground for it there and then filling in the hole - the station could then be dug up again once everything else was finished so that the empty concrete box could be turned into a station) and screwed up what was left of once-fertile relations with the road lobby to boot. Were it not for the fact that the rail industry detests roads, the road lobby thinks that railways are below it and neither side will acknowledge that they have anything in common, the two sides could do worse than unite to lobby against the Government's new favourite form of transport - the aeroplane.

Darling was replaced in 2006 by Douglas Alexander. Both Alexander and Darling are Scottish MPs who also acted as Scottish Secretary while running Transport, leading to grumbles that they seemed to be favouring their home country and weren't accountable to the English - the people who felt the bulk of the brunt of their decisions, as Scotland gets to do whatever it likes with transport. Curiously, the Scottish Labour Party were very happy to encourage railways. Under Alexander, electrification was pushed so far down the agenda that it was suggested that the ECML could end up being de-wired. By the end of his tenure he was engaged in dealing with Gordon Brown's succession to the premiership and was consequently too busy to listen to the railways, who were being very vocal about Government proposals. Virgin, having lost the Cross Country franchise, got the West Coast franchise fully reinstated after several years of it being controlled by the SRA after the WCRM went up the spout and softened the damage to its image with a subsidy of £200,000,000 per year for operating the UK's busiest (and for some years the most profitable) railway. The WCRM seemed to be easing into its final stages but little else was happening - and little else was proposed, apart from replacing HST with some super-train (the bulk of any order of which would be diesel powered) which would in turn be replaced by a train fuelled on hydrogen, which rapidly came to be called "bionic duckweed" with the civil-servant procured train generally held in contempt by an industry which, despite Beeching and Privatisation, still felt that it knew best.

Ruth Kelly was the new person on the Transport block. Darling had gone up to the Chancellor of the Exchequor, where he is trying to keep out of the news. His predessecor is kindly doing most of the public appearances for him. Alexander moved sideways into varying flavours of hot water, which he climbed out of to find himself on the shore marked "Obscurity". Kelly began by listening to her civil servants on electrification. She then received a letter from the top brass at ATOC wanting to know when she would commit to electrification and listing its advantages. After a minor overrun of two weeks on the Rugby remodelling for the last stage of the WCRM over Christmas 2007 electrification began to climb the agenda again, particularly with High Speed 1 into St Pancras (completed on time, to original spec and within budget) showing exactly what could be achieved. But high-speed rail was kept off the agenda, for fear that it might upset the airlines. This is a shame, because by moving the expresses off the WCML south of Preston, the Government could allow many more passenger and freight trains to use the railway without the current argument over paths (of which there are not nearly enough) and competition with Virgin (which is banned).

The death of Gwyneth Dunwoody in May 2008 lost the railway network a key ally in Parliament and the Transport Select Committee, where she had always been very good at demonstrating the incompetance of successive Ministers. Kelly left in September 2008, having been naturalised slightly too much. She was replaced with Geoff Hoon, who gave no reason for hope and was replaced by his Minister for Railways, Lord Andrew Adonis, who was one of the better people in Parliament, despite being unelected. The Tories then returned and the fairly capable Philip Hammond took the top job.The recession left the railways with a tricky problem.

Under current DfT rules, if a franchise holder defaults on one franchise, then they lose all their franchises. Currently First has 4 (Scotrail, Transpennine, Capital Connect and Great Western, with open-access passenger operator Hull Trains thrown in for good measure). DB has 3 (Wales, run under the Arriva brand, plus Cross Country and Chiltern, which are under Arriva management but marketed as independent) as does GoVia (Southeastern, Southern and London Midland). Stagecoach, Serco/Ned Rail and National Express each have 2 (Stagecoach has South West Trains, which has the Isle of Wight thrown in for good measure, and East Midlands Trains, while Serco has Northern and Merseyrail and National Express has East Anglia and c2c). Virgin is the smallest, with 1 (West Coast); the Government is then responsible for East Coast on an "arm's length" basis. Virgin Trains is part owned by Stagecoach, DB is the German State Railway (which now also owns EWS), while Serco is a Network Rail contractor and NedRail is the national rail company in the Netherlands. Transport for London also operates the London Overground network, which is no longer a franchised rail service. DB and NedRail are unlikely to default as they have the funds of large Governments behind them. If Virgin defaults, despite its massive subsidy, the DfT would probably call it good riddance. If First goes to the wall, then the DfT will have to handle the re-letting of four franchises - if they merely give up on the large Great Western premium payment then they will be expected to pay for re-letting the other three as well, while there will also be the interesting question of what happens to Hull Trains. (This is now debatable - "cross-default" could not be exercised on East Coast, which will undermine the ability to push it elsewhere.) If several operators run out of money, re-letting could get interesting - although by 2011 the only operators to have gone under were East Coast (whose parent company nearly went bust) and open-access operated Wrexham and Shropshire (which was genuinely unfortunate and out of the blue but not exceptionally surprising).

Of course, there is also the question of why a Government which came to power committed to killing privatisation ever wanted to re-let any franchises. Southeastern spent a brief period under Government control after Connex was evicted in 2003 and can hardly be described as having done badly. If privatisation was ended in this way all the franchises would be back in-house by 2020 and able to organise themselves at arms-length from the Government (which is currently very close to the system and has to keep covering up for the latest round of it getting its fingers burnt). Had this happened it is hard to believe that the Tories would have bothered to reinstate the system upon returning to power. Economies of scale would be possible - large fleets could be bought from one builder with standard parts rather than several smaller fleets with incompatible parts (whether from differing builders or the same builder - Turbostars and Electrostars were both built by Bombardier but cannot talk to each other; Cross Country's Voyagers and EMT's Meridians were also both built by Bombardier but cannot talk to each other; Electrostars and Desiros now make up the Southern Region's fleet and cannot talk to each other or to any of ex-BR or Alstom-built trains which they share the lines with). It would also be nice to go back 20 years to a time when making a follow-on order did not require going out to tender again, with the potential of getting a new fleet of a dozen trains which are incompatible with the original fleet of 50 trains. It would also be nice if these follow-on orders could get through the DfT in less than 18 months. BR never had to make any fuss about an Express Sprinter being able to talk to a Pacer - something which is useful for simply bunging the units together, but which can make the life of the 75mph Pacer uncomfortable when the driver in the 90mph Express Sprinter forgets what he is towing.

So - if we bring the franchises back in-house by letting them die off and not re-letting them we will, once again, have a unified passenger network (albeit with three open-access operators, but they already have a hard time from everyone else and are fairly small fry).

Meanwhile the Government spent years having problems with Porterbrook, Angel Trains and HSBC Rail (formerly Eversholt Leasing) - the companies which actually own the trains. A four-car electric Desiro costs less to lease than a two-car diesel Pacer (partly because more parts of the network are passed for Pacers and partly because a Pacer has a much lower re-sale value, so the leasing company wants to get lots of cash out of it now). This led to the ROSCOs being referred to the Competition Commission by the DfT. The first words from the Competition Commission suggested that they were having some difficulty establishing what the market for leasing trains was and why anyone should want one. The interim report was welcomed by the ROSCOs, who are being very co-operative, but was totally disowned by the DfT, which has announced that it will be ignoring it, due to it blaming the lack of a market entirely on Government intrusion. Had the Government moved at some point to buy the ROSCOs instead it could have got a fairly mixed bag of generally good stock for less than £6billion (probably less than the market value of their assets); all three were up for sale at the time. Angel Trains has now gone to Babcock and Brown and Porterbrook has been sold to the a conglomeration consisting of quite a lot of banks (Deutsche Bank and Lloyds TSB are the most notable). HSBC is yet to dispose of HSBC Rail, but would rather like to. The only issue with buying the ROSCOs back is that they have got involved in overseas rail business - but then again so have the German and Dutch national railway companies.

Network Rail currently has a massive debt which needs dealing with at some point, so buying the company for £1 and paying off its debts of £20billion is only a matter of time - and the Government may as well get it over with before someone loudly announces that Network Rail being a private company is only an extravagant fiction, at which point the £20billion will be cheerily shifted onto the Government's books and left there to proudly carry UK national debt up to 50% of GDP.

The freight operators are doing quite well at the moment but will find it hard to moan about worse treatment. Paths are at a premium and a 60mph freight takes up quite a lot of room on a 100-125mph railway, so it tends to get shunted into a loop quite often. However, all of the Big Four - EWS, Freightliner, DRS and FirstGBRf - are making a profit and are busily developing their various businesses. Freightliner has branched out into Poland. EWS has invaded France, leased locomotives to Spain and been bought by the Germans. A rebranding operation to convert them to DB Schenker is expected at some point. The Germans are now continuing EWS's policy of conquering the French rail network - not something which SNCF has been putting up much resistance to since the EU reminded them of Open Access laws and ordered them to let the British in - and are currently doing quite well. The French have bought British Nuclear Fuels but, as this no longer controls DRS, they have not managed to acquire a British rail operator. As these freight operators are mostly independent of the rest of the system they may as well stay that way, thus maintaining an impression of open access - along with Hull Trains and that organisation which is now doing quite well, Grand Central. Most of the freight operators hire their locomotives from the ROSCOs, but as they sub-let some of them back to the TOCs, merging the ROSCOs and the TOCs would make these services cheaper to run. The freight operators hiring locos from BR would a) ensure that the locos meet BR's standards and b) be no different from the freight operators hiring their locos from ROSCOs

The other bodies - most notably ATOC and National Rail - can be merged back into the British Rail Residuary Body. The Office of the Rail Regulator can survive with one regulator rather than 11 to handle relations between BR and the open access companies.

This would mean that by 2020 we would have:

  • A self-sufficient BR, concentrating on passenger trains, hiring out locomotives to anyone who wants them;
  • A number of open-access passenger operations providing useful services which do not fit in with BR's remit;
  • Various railtour companies, continuing as normal except they wouldn't have to deal with so many organisations;
  • Four big freight companies plus a selection of smaller organisations handling freight traffic.

This would eliminate most of the contractoral relationships and reduce costs, possibly going so far as to divide them by 3.14 (costs had been multiplied by 3.14 by the time Network Rail arrived). That means an instant cost saving without having to cut any services, hire in consultants, sack staff or replace the train fleet with more efficient stock.

Of course, it's debatable as to whether anyone would be up to it. It's even more debatable as to what privatisation has really changed. For the railway industry looks much the same as it ever did. It's very insular and isolated, with little appreciation of the real world. It gets into holes and flails around madly. The fact that railways are authorised by Parliament leaves Parliament and the Government with a belief that they need to regulate the industry beyond where a railway can be, yet this has consistently irritated the industry and rarely comes out particularly well.

Coal created the rail network and only coal has ever made sustainable profits. Black Gold has been carted around the country in varying quantities at ever-increasing speeds among a constantly fluctuating supply of other forms of traffic, many of which have been and gone, leaving few signs of their presence. Livestock, fruit and veg all used to be carried by train. Newspapers were a steady form of traffic until the 1980s; Royal Mail ran with the railways form nearly 170 years before leaving in 2004; now they have a skeleton service on the WCML.

Possibly the greatest sign of the unchanging state of the railway industry is the rural stopping train. Beeching tried to kill them, saying that they lost money; certainly it is hard to see how many of them pay their fuel costs, serving fewer people over a 100 mile length of track than pass through Birmingham New Street station in one hour, with fewer trains each year than Clapham Junction sees in a week. Yet the people clambering onto the Taunton-Cardiff stopper (via everywhere) cannot look very different to those who boarded the Swansea and Mumbles Railway 200 years previously, apart from their taste in clothes. They still have their heavy bags, their dogs, their food and drink; they are still a varied bunch, from those on a day out, through those on one leg of a long journey, to those who are commuting to or from work; they still range between the sleeping, the alert and the drunk.

Other things never change either. A railway being built still attracts claims that it will put the chickens off laying, create vast amounts of noise and ruin the view. Yet this lack of change has come despite Beeching's desperate public relations exercise to make the public appreciate that their railway was not guaranteed to be a permanent way; while you will find those who will tell you that the landscape is not complete without a Great Western engine hustling through it with two coaches, going nowhere in an era when time was apparently unimportant (though it clearly was, otherwise the eight passengers would have gone by road), you will also not have to look far for someone who will tell you that a single-car Class 153 clattering quietly across a marsh 10 times a day will drive the local population of Great Crested Newts to extinction.

The railways, with their differing classes of transport, varying loads and strange sense of sameness, reflect the society in which they live. When it was big industry, not people, that built the world, big industry was concentrated on and passenger traffic suffered. Now the industry is gone and the economy is based on people; they are the new product to be carried long distances in bulk and they look surprised when the railway follows its old habits, overloading the wagons, supplying less capacity than is really needed for the quantities being carried and being unaware that prices should really be lowered when "reliable service" falls off the "things to offer" list, despite being remarkably astute when it comes to the reverse and noting that a better-quality service should cost much more.

Privatisation or not, this industry and its strange idea of the world will continue for a long time to come.

Last modified 18/03/11

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