Integration is “a damp squib”.
CHRISTIAN WOLMAR opposes Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s decision not to transfer inner-suburban rail services to Transport for London, and believes that the plans for more joined-up working will have little impact on railway operations
A decade or so ago I wrote a book called On the Wrong Line - How Incompetence and Ideology wrecked Britain’s railways. I think the two ‘i’ words are again in danger of wrecking the railway, which - as Nigel Harris mentioned in his editorial in RAIL 814, is in danger of suffering from a perfect storm.
The much trailed and leaked speech by Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling on December 6 was the hallmark of a minister desperate to show he is doing something when he is hamstrung by ideology and incompetence - both his own and that of various other players in the industry.
Let’s start with ideology. Grayling has a clearly deep-seated loathing of the public sector, perhaps because he once worked for the BBC. As Justice Minister he actually privatised the Probation Service, despite the fact that its various regional offices had all been assessed as running well and that it is a government function that seems particularly ill-suited to being run for profit.
A chunk of the service was handed over to Sodexo, a French company best known for supplying catering services, with predictable results as it soon failed an audit by the very Justice Ministry which had sold it off.
Grayling’s other famous - or rather infamous - policy was to prevent books being sent to prisoners, despite widespread recognition that helping convicts to learn to read and write reduces recidivism. His excuse at the time was that the move was to enhance security in prisons, but this did not wash with the thousands of authors (myself included) who wrote to protest a decision that, thankfully, has now been reversed.
I mention this little tale because Grayling was, in my opinion, in the dubious excuses game again last week, when he was explaining his decision not to hand over a chunk of London suburban and regional services to Transport for London - a scheme that had been negotiated by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London.
It had been widely agreed, across the political spectrum and among passenger groups, that this scheme was a good idea. As I have written in this column previously ( RAIL 812), Khan would have had to put in new resources to ensure the new arrangement was successful, but all in all it was a good idea.
Grayling said that he had decided not to sanction the transfer because there would be a democratic deficit for people living in (say) Guildford who would have no say in the services they use. However, not only did Surrey and Kent County Councils agree to the arrangement, the good burghers of Guildford, Woking and wherever do not have any say in what South West Trains currently provides
anyway - it is determined by the specification laid out by the Department for Transport. In any case, London Underground and London buses already run services beyond London’s borders.
To Grayling’s embarrassment, that became all too apparent when a letter he wrote three years ago to Johnson was leaked to the Evening Standard, revealing that Grayling “would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of a future Labour mayor”, even though he did not “have any fears over the immediate future” - in other words, while there was a Conservative in City Hall.
This was an own goal for two reasons. Firstly, you should never put something as potentially politically embarrassing as that down on paper. Secondly, if he really is making decisions on such a political basis, he is opening himself to Judicial Review. Even MPs on his own side, such as Bromley’s Bob Neill (a barrister) have argued he should be sacked.
Grayling had hoped that this decree would be buried under the news from the rest of his announcement, set out eventually (after the leaks) in a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank, where members of the RMT union even staged a picket. They were concerned at an extension of privatisation and at the break-up of Network Rail, although in fact Grayling was suggesting no such thing.
The newspapers had been briefed that Network Rail would face competition and that Grayling would embark on a process of reintegrating the railway. The press was fooled, running headlines about the break-up of Network Rail and suggesting that some lines might be fully privatised as integrated entities.
It was, of course, all nonsense. Grayling had merely decided that East West Rail, the new bit of line needed to complete the OxfordCambridge link, would be built by an organisation other than Network Rail (my bet is it ends up being maintained by the stateowned company anyway, like High Speed 1), and that a couple of new franchises would be run as alliances - much like the failed experiment on South West Trains.
It might have been a red rag to the unions, but it was merely a bit of tinkering and a reaffirmation of much of what Network Rail is doing anyway, as was confirmed a couple of days later by NR Chief Executive Mark Carne.
Grayling is, of course, on to something. When he was Shadow Transport Secretary a decade ago, he realised that the separation of the railway into infrastructure and operations was a mistake, and that the best way to run the industry is through a sole integrated company.
The trouble is, Grayling is hoist by his own petard. He will not countenance the obvious solution to creating integrated companies, which is (as the Labour party is seeking) to simply let the franchises run out and merge with Network Rail. The reason is that this would mean a de facto renationalisation, which would be as anathema to Grayling as having lunch with Ken Livingstone. He is certainly not the man about to re-create British Rail.
Nor can he suggest the full-scale privatisation of Network Rail. That is politically unpalatable and in practice difficult and complex. It is unlikely, in any case, that the private sector would want to take on the risk, given the fate of Railtrack.
Therefore, Grayling’s big announcement was a damp squib. All he could do was pretty much follow what Network Rail was doing already, which was to put more emphasis on alliances and improving the lot of passengers. His clever media manipulation meant he was rewarded with a few nice headlines and TV coverage, but the impact on the railways will be negligible.
Southeastern 465183 enters London Bridge on November 29. Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling’s decision not to let Transport for London take over suburban services from Southeastern when the next franchise is let illustrates his dislike for...