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

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Chris­tian Wol­mar

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...

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