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The Wrong Track, Sunday February 4 2001
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I wholly agree with M. Feeley of Prestons' letter - while the present government are being slated, maybe it is the instigators of this current mess that should be brought to task.
Generally, a good, timely programme - in particular, Lord MacDonald's efforts to keep a straight face when ambushed by Prescott's extravagant quotes on rail investment were worth a fair old chunk of the licence fee alone.
But too much musak - please, please resist this - it is the very stuff of 'dumbing down' and who do you know that actually says they like it? It simply makes the rest of the soundtrack - the important bits - more of an effort to listen to. You could have been a lot harder on the Rail Regulator - I know Tom Winsor is a relatively recent appointment but his predecessor allowed Railtrack to put in place a wholly inadequate structure. And harder, too, on the current Chief Executive - he seemed to me to be the usual evasive, faceless suit whose No.1 priority is PR and soft-soaping the likes of John Ware in front of the cameras.
Very hard hitting analysis tonight. Why not call to account those politicians who designed the current structure and brought us into this predicament from which even an expensive escape seems unlikely - short of renationalisation.
I was alarmed to see your latest programme on our rail service. My son-in law works for a firm who currently has a contract for rail maintenance, he sometimes is "signed" for 12 hours work when in fact he has only been there for 2 hours. To further your enquiry into the state of our railways, try to investigate track maintenance divisions.
To reply to Jack from Coventry. Your life in a car is not in your hands, it is in the hands of everyone else on the road. Some years ago I was hit head on by someone coming round a corner on the wrong side of the road. I had no chance. But I was lucky and only sustained injuries.
A most interesting programme.
Perhaps you should do a sequel:
Comparison of British railway developments or lack of them with
what is happening in Europe. Equivalent distances and journey times and
One point which I think should have been made re gauge corner cracking is the
change in rail material properties which could have been contributory.
As far as I am aware rails have been treated to toughen them and reduce wear. Since this is a surface hardening
process it may result in a greater likelihood of cracks propagating.
Also railways in Europe use a different design of rail which is used on some lines here but not widely because it is a heavier rail and therefore more expensive.
Need anything more be said?
Good balanced view of Railtrack and other operators. I would like to say that No Public money should go into the Rail system at any level as it only makes the Fat Cats FATTER at the tax payers expense. However, we the travelling public need the rail system, so let Prescott spend tax payers money and for every £1 of tax payer's money shares come back to the tax payer.
Secondly I would like to say that the Sunday programme was not just news but educational at the same time, and I would like to suggest that the BBC re-run the programme to show how Railtrack has been managed from the onset and (re-establish the old management from British Rail) and lets see a proper debate about MAINTENANCE issues "then and now".
Well done again BBC
New Labour have improved this country no end EXCEPT for the railways. By allowing them to be run by a 'profit' making company, out of the hands of government, is a huge error and one which should be tackled.
Would re-nationalisation really work?
The local Robin Hood line is run by local government and is one of the worst lines in the East Midlands.
Surely it was lack of government investment in British Rail that led to the problems we're now seeing.
The Argument used that x number of people die on the roads is irrelevant, since when you drive your life is your own responsibility. When you sit in a train your life is in the hands of a company. NOT good enough.
What never fails to amaze me is our collective inability (at a senior level) to see the obvious, and then to act on it. At the time of privatisation:-
a) everyone KNEW that the railways were grossly underfunded, yet the civil servants and others who set up the scheme did nothing to reverse the trend - if anything they made it worse by delay and legal argument;
b) everyone KNEW that confrontational contracts will not build better operations and safety, but the directors (of Railtrack in particular) carried on blindly, and spent a fortune on creating today's shambolic structure;
c) everyone KNEW that railway equipment is depreciated over a long time, but they still went for short-term planning horizons.
Why is it when you point out potential problems with the track which are very obvious, no one seems to take a jot of notice. I have sent e-mails to Northern Spirit and the Rail Regulator without reply. I found it very annoying when a Rail track senior manager insisted on Radio 4's PM programme recently that the track is inspected weekly, this is just nonsense. Will it take another crash before someone does something? I travel daily from home to Manchester via Leeds. To say that Leeds has opened is a bit tongue in cheek, you want to take a journey up to the station from any direction, 10 - 20 minutes delay is common place at the moment.
I use the 'Hatfield' line, and was disturbed to speak recently with an employee of a contractor - who inspect the lines - who said that the steel used in the making of rails nowadays is of inferior quality, and imported. Rather bizarre, coming in the wake of the Corus announcements. Is cheaper, but inferior quality steel, also to blame?
Enjoyed your programme. Thought perhaps you should be aware that Railtrack recently (last month) replaced a large section of line as a result of the goods train derailment in Northampton. However, despite this, there is STILL a 20mph speed restriction! Don't they trust their own work? Northampton (a large town >250,000 people) has been hit very hard by Railtracks political gestures which have seen a full recovery of the Virgin services on the East Coast Mainline (fast track only) but the same line (slow track) has only a 75% recovery of the regular commuter service run by Silverlink.
So Hatfield resulted in some inconvenience to rail travellers for a few months; Railtrack, their contractors and lack of investment are to blame; and the future is bleak because of the potential lack of investment. Shallow, narrow and short-term focused and sensationally presented in a way so typical of the BBC culture. Similar point could be made on how the BBC has let down the terrestrial sporting viewer through lack of investment and innovation! Surely programmes can be more informative, help understanding and not continually trying to pin blame. So why not try another perspective - such as looking at human behaviour and operational risk to help people appreciate how they can contribute individually and collectively to improve services. Be positive for a change!
If govt. funding ceases, and Railtrack cannot raise £'s can they be declared bankrupt and bought
back for £1? Joe public may not suffer as they do not hold shares and prefer a proper rail service. How much dividend paid out already by Railtrack, how much subsidy already made? How much is annual subsidy to train operators at present? How much has Connex been subsidised by and paid out by them as dividend?
The programme on Panorama was excellently presented, and John Ware was a most telling and compulsive interviewer.
The shortcomings of the privatisation set-up and Railtrack's neglect were vividly portrayed.
There are perhaps two notes of complaint.
Firstly it is absolutely vital to have a first-class railway system in the future. The answer to congestion surely is not to build yet more roads. We all hope, quite desperately, that the railways will be revived. What is the point then of the BBC's negative conclusion? Does this help? How does it affect the morale of workers in the railway industry, which surely is vital?
Secondly, the free 'plug' given to the airlines failed to mention the hazards of snow and fog at airports - as quite recently.
The conclusion is that the media, including the BBC, always consider the railways fair game for bashing.
Tragically 4 people died at Hatfield.
Equally tragically, probably about 70 died on the roads in that same week, and continue to die at the same rate every week.
Ultrasonic measuring equipment has to be set up to measure specific types of cracks, otherwise they may go undetected. An experienced operative to interpret the results is also necessary. I saw neither depicted in the programme!
The current problems of the UK railways stem from the under-investment of several decades and may take many years to rectify.
However, a slick and efficient transport infrastructure is a key element of any successful economy. It is alarming to see that we are now neglecting the development of our road infrastructure in the same cavalier way we have abandoned our rail system. Some of Mr.Brown's overflowing coffer should be invested in our transport infrastructure - not wasted on family credits and other bottomless pits; otherwise third way will equal third world!
I have lived in London since 1991, and I am sick and tired of hearing politician's avoiding facing the fact. The fact is you have a crappy transport system! UK economy maybe booming, but English lifestyle is that of the third world country thanks to a shambolic underground, road traffic, and railway transport system. Why don't you learn from the Japanese transport system?! Japanese citizens do not mind subsidising rail fares for better rolling stocks and superior safety system and rail tracks. Why don't you nationalise the whole damn thing?!
The segmentation of the National Rail Network following Privatisation has seriously affected Rail Safety. The Question is, who is responsible for dealing with a particular incident? As a Londoner I find the number of different Railway Companies operating in London, confusing. This fragmentation also works against the Rail Traveller because one Company is not going to go out of it's way to give information about an alternative train service especially if it is cheaper. As a disabled Person I have to use Public Transport, since I am unable to drive a car. I suspect that quite often politicians assume that Public Transport is an option people take when they do not wish to use their cars. No allowance is given for those of us who do not drive. I thought the programme was very informative & confirmed my worst fears about the state of the Railways.
Is re-nationalisation really an option? I don't think so. The railways need more investment, and certainly new labour's pledges seem to be pipe dreams of Mr Prescott's. However, we need people with a vision for the future (including Sir Richard Branson) involved in the process. Let's encourage all those interested parties to get together and sort out how the regeneration of the railways can be achieved. Any business, public or private, should be run as efficiently as possible. Many of the privatised industries have got it right, but Railtrack clearly haven't. Get some engineering experts on the board, build meaningful partnerships with contractors, rail manufacturers and train operating companies. Neither government, nor railtrack nor the train operating companies can change things overnight by themselves. But working together, we all might have a chance of seeing a revitalised rail system. Let's focus on the future, and learn from the mistakes of the past, so disasters such as Hatfield cannot happen again.
Obviously the present government has broken, and is breaking every promise they made on the environment and Railtrack. That any sane authority should even think of handing more of the public money to Railtrack under any pretext is just throwing good money after bad. The only solution to the railway troubles is to gather together railway engineers, from whatever source, and re-Nationalise the whole of the railway system. Nothing will succeed whilst we still have Macdonald and Prescott doing deals with Railtrack bosses. It has been noted that Gerald Corbett, the last chairman of Railtrack has quietly slipped away into obscurity, although he presided over more than one disaster.
One point that was missing from your programme is whether we now have the expertise in this country to put transport back on the rails.
Our miserable record on large infrastructure projects - dome, Jubilee line, railways and now Wembley stadium suggest Ken Livingston was right to look abroad for talent.
In a debate over credibility, Kiley beats the combination of John Prescott, the treasury and UK engineering firms anytime.
After all we can't even successfully build a footbridge over the Thames!
So lets find the talent and the money, if we want a decent transport system again.
Having previously worked for Railtrack, I would like to make the following observations:
1) The public do not realise how poorly funded British Rail was, and the legacy Railtrack now has to deal with. Equipment was regularly operating beyond its normal life.
2) British Rail did not keep a very good record of its assets, hence Railtrack is still trying to identify what it owns and its condition.
3) The maintenance workforce on each route rarely changes, it simply works for whoever gets the contract for it. Thus, in many cases, the maintenance work doesn't improve despite a change of contractor.
4) Railtrack Zones tend to compete with one another, often to the detriment of the infrastructure.
Sadly, whilst your programme highlighted most of what's known within the industry, no one seems to want to do any thing about Railtrack. It is a monolith that is answerable to no one and does not even apply its own rules to itself. I used to drive trains until mid 1998 and I got out because I did not want to be the driver of a train that was involved in an accident because it takes a good driver to escape the blame of an accident. Even now I loathe driving on trains, not because of the train operating companies, but because of railtrack.
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