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Review of 2001 Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 09:50 GMT
A year of rail chaos
Departure board showing cancelled service
Rail services improved little during 2001
By the BBC's Tom Symonds

The British railways have ended the year in as much turmoil as they started it.

In January 2001, passengers caught their first trains of the New Year to find, in some cases, they had been replaced by buses.

Engineering work had overrun on the East and West Coast mainlines as the network struggled to recover from the Hatfield train crash.

It seems impossible but things are worse now.

The number of delays caused by Railtrack is rising beyond the company's own expectations, a third of all trains are now late.

The railway system is a house of cards supported by the shaky hands of dozens of train companies, maintenance firms, safety inspectors, strategic directors, government officials and of course Railtrack.

Last year it was toppled by Hatfield, this year the events of 7 October have provided the upset.

The news broke on the BBC one Saturday night.

The government, we revealed, was about to call time on Railtrack, and apply to the courts for the company to be taken into administration.

Stephen Byers MP
Stephen Byers refused to write Railtrack a 'blank cheque'
Transport Secretary Stephen Byers was withdrawing his financial support.

With the cat out of the bag, intricate ministerial plans for a delicate PR operation to announce what amounted to an overnight coup, had to be torn up.

Some 24 hours later, the control of the rail network had been placed in the hands of accountants from Ernst and Young.

Railtrack managers were horrified.

The effect of that government decision has been to cast new uncertainty over the future of the railways.

Blank cheque

Stephen Byers says he did it because he could not write Railtrack the proverbial blank cheque.


Railtrack's directors claim they never asked for unlimited government money, just more time to make things work.

His critics see it differently. Quite apart from the 250,000 shareholders, who are out of pocket, they say more structural disruption is the last thing the system needs.

Railtrack's directors claim they never asked for unlimited government money, just more time to make things work.

It will take time - possibly up to two years - to set up a replacement for Railtrack.

The administrators are legally bound to consider all potential bidders for the company and banks in Germany and the US have already revealed their interest.

Mr Byers has put the chief executive of Ford UK, Ian McAllister, in charge of his bid for a not-for-profit company with no shareholders.

He insists it will mean better train services in future.

While Railtrack has collapsed, train operators have quietly pushed on with their plans.

The Selby rail crash
Ten people died in the Selby crash in February
But uncertainty has followed them at every turn too.

Many are nearing the end of their franchises to run services, yet the government has said it will simply extend the contracts of some operators, so that proposals for long-term improvements can be thrashed out.

If train companies cannot guarantee they will be running the trains, there is less incentive to buy new carriages or renovate ageing stations.

Tragedy stunned the railways again this year, when on 28 February a high speed GNER express crashed head-on into a freight train, killing 10 people.

But the accident at Great Heck near Selby was unlike any previous disaster on the railways.

A Landrover and trailer had tumbled onto the track from an adjacent motorway, triggering a freak set of circumstances.

That the railways were not to blame did not make the loss of life any easier to bear.

It also does not mean safety is any less of an issue.

Major improvements

Three separate inquiry reports into previous accidents have demanded major improvements.

Most notably the joint inquiry into rail safety systems called for massive investment in devices to prevent trains running through red stop signals - a cause of many crashes.

Fitting such systems where they are needed will cost billions of pounds.

Train travels near Berwick
Three different reports have called for improvements in rail safety
There is still no timetable for the work to be finished, and many in the industry are starting to say the money would be better spent on something else.

Improving safety and improving punctuality both come down to the need to improve management on the railways.

That will demand vision from the men and women who run our train services.

But it will also demand a clear strategy for the future - and the Strategic Rail Authority's most important New Year's resolution, will be to publish its plan to improve services over the next 10 years, a plan that has been hugely delayed.

The government is under increased pressure too.

It has closed down Railtrack and it needs to ensure control of the network is handed to a body with the capability, cash and confidence to do the job.

Most of all, train companies, track managers and passengers need certainty about how the system will be managed in the future.

The smooth running of such a complicated operation depends on it.

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See also:

21 Dec 01 | Business
15 Oct 01 | Business
07 Oct 01 | Business
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