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Thursday, 10 May, 2001, 09:07 GMT
The rail crisis

Passengers have been deserting the railways since the Hatfield crash. So how can the service be rebuilt?

Transport is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, except for regulation and some safety issues, which remain the responsibility of Westminster.


First there was Southall, then Paddington and most recently Hatfield - three rail disasters in which forty-two people died and more than four hundred were injured.

RAIL DISASTERS 1997-2000
SOUTHALL
7 dead 150 injured
PADDINGTON
31 dead 227 injured
HATFIELD
4 dead 70 injured

Passenger numbers increased by 17% over the past three years.

But in the first weeks after the Hatfield crash, 40% of passengers gave up travelling by train.

Virgin Trains lost half its passengers and its chief executive, Chris Green, predicted that it could take a year or more before people returned to all parts of the network.

Other industry analysts were even more pessimistic and suggested it would be 2003 before passenger numbers recovered.

This has profound implications.

Without more passengers the industry is unlikely to raise the money it needs for fundamental improvements.

Without the investment the train companies are unlikely to attract customers back to the railway.

So the question facing all parties is how to get Britain's rail network running again.


THE HATFIELD CRASH

A broken rail at Hatfield led to the derailment of the intercity express from Kings Cross to Leeds.

Eight of the rear coaches were derailed and the roof was ripped off the buffet car as it hit an overhead power line.

Four people died and 70 were injured.


It's the company's responsibility to understand the condition of their assets. They failed properly to understand the condition of their network and that, I think, has led to some very significant difficulties

Tom Winsor, Rail Regulator on Railtrack
The Hatfield crash was caused by a specific form of metal fatigue on the tracks called "gauge corner cracking".

In February, the BBC's Panorama programme reported that Balfour Beaty, the contractor appointed by Railtrack to maintain the Hatfield line, had warned of danger 10 months before the fatal accident.

But immediate action was not taken.

Two further recommendations to replace a suspect section of the track came to nothing, the programme reported.

Yet despite the state of the track, there were no speed restrictions on the line.

A draft report of the official investigation into the crash by the industry's safety body, Railway Safety, is said to state Railtrack was aware of the problems with the tracks two years before the tragedy. That's a year earlier than it previously admitted.

According to a report in the Financial Times, the unpublished investigation found a "strong probability" that the track was broken before the train passed over it.

But a catalogue of mistakes meant the rails were not fixed, according to the inquiry.

Since the derailment, contractors have struggled to rebuild the network.

Every inch of track had to be inspected - all 20,000 miles of it. About 1,000 speed restrictions were imposed, often as low as 20 miles an hour. Many services were cancelled outright.

At first, Railtrack said the timetable would be back to normal by December 2000, then it was February 2001 and before the crash at Selby, in north Yorkshire, it was Easter.

Now the Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor, is taking legal action to force Railtrack to restore Britain's rail network to normal operation by the time the summer timetable comes into effect on 21 May.

Business leaders have given a warning that a prolonged crisis could cost up to 5bn.


THE LEGACY OF PRIVATISATION

The Hatfield crash highlighted fundamental weaknesses in the structure of the industry.


The different parts of the railway don't really stick together. The trouble with legal contracts is that people take a contractual approach to matters and they may not necessarily do the common-sense thing if it disadvantages their company.

Roger Ford, Modern Railways Magazine
The network was broken into 100 different parts including 24 train companies, which lease and run the trains, and Railtrack, the only privatised track authority in the world, which owns the stations and infrastructure.

The new-look industry also had a network of contractors to manage, as Railtrack was not set up with its own engineers to conduct detailed inspections of the track.

Critics say that lack of engineering expertise within Railtrack - it only had one board member with engineering experience - has been part of the problem.

But another severe problem has been lack of investment.

While for its part Railtrack has often complained that most of its income from train operators is fixed.

And it has not benefited from the increase in passengers.

Meanwhile, the train companies have seen a decline in their public subsidies during the course of their franchises - and they say they have no extra money to pay for the increased journeys.


RENATIONALISATION?

Voters appear unconvinced that privatisation was the right medicine. A poll for BBC 2's Newsnight programme in December 2000 revealed that 69% of those asked thought that Railtrack should be returned to public ownership.

They are supported by a large group of mostly Labour MPs and the rail unions who believe that privatisation has led directly to the current crisis.


It is unacceptable that the taxpayer should be compelled to bail out a private monopoly company

Commons Transport Committee

The Commons Transport Select Committee called on the government this March to seriously consider re-nationalising Railtrack, because its record on safety, maintenance and renewal is so poor.

The MPs say it is "unacceptable" for a private monopoly to continue spending vast amounts of public money without having some public control over its operations.

The rail regulator dismissed the call for renationalisation as "enormously expensive" and Labour is clear that it is not on the agenda.


GOVERNMENT PROMISES

Instead of renationalisation Transport Secretary John Prescott has promised a "railway renaissance" through a public/private partnership, saying that investment was the key.

Labour in government says it will give the railways a huge boost in its 10-year transport plan.

SRA's major rail schemes over 10 years
8.7bn on London-Scotland routes
140mph tilting trains for West Coast mainline
Channel tunnel link completed 2003
Improve links between key northern cities
Better service to Manchester Airport
More capacity in north and south London
200m on cross country lines

This commits 60bn to the railways over the next 10 years.

26bn will be funded by the taxpayer, with the rest coming from the private sector.

The long-awaited strategy from the Strategic Rail Authority, the body tasked with creating a better railway network, was finally published in March.

It sets out which areas the 60bn should be aimed at, although the SRA admits it is "highly unlikely" all projects will be completed.


CAN THE PLAN BE DELIVERED?

At this stage private sector funding cannot be guaranteed.

In order to make their own contribution to the 10-year plan, the train companies and Railtrack must increase their revenue.


Analysts say they need to attract a 50% increase in new passengers and an 80% rise in freight to secure market investment.

Industry sceptics question whether this is currently achievable.

Railtrack's finances are already suffering because of the hundreds of millions of pounds of compensation it is expected to pay to the train companies.

Panorama reported that the company's situation is so serious that it has already been contemplating scrapping up to 6bn worth of projects scheduled for the first half of the 10-year plan.

And the Commons Transport Select Committee is "far from confident" that Railtrack can deliver the major infrastructure improvements.

The rail crisis has had profound implications for the whole transport sector.

Not only have passengers left the railways in droves, they switched to the biggest polluters - cars and planes.

Opinion polls suggest however, that voters are more likely to blame the Conservatives for the rail crisis as the party responsible for privatisation.

Yet, the Conservatives do not think Labour's railway "renaissance" goes far enough.

They are demanding a further restructuring of Railtrack.

While the Liberal Democrats say their ideas would make the railways "safe, reliable and affordable".

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