A Broken Network

This week’s train crash is the result of decades of political engineering

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 19th October 2000

The 12.10 from London to Leeds passed the train on which I was travelling ten minutes before it crashed. I think I recollect it, a flickering distraction from the papers I was reading on my way into King’s Cross. I still haven’t quite grasped the idea that while I was packing my bag and thinking about my lunch, the other train was being ripped apart.

It’s hardly surprising that we should wish to find the person responsible for this outrage and vent our fury upon him. It’s no less surprising that the man who runs the company charged with maintaining the track should be identified as the culprit. But to blame Gerald Corbett would be to exonerate the real offenders. He has presented himself as a sacrifice, to atone for the multiple failures of our railways. We should reject it.

If the crash was caused by a broken rail, then there can be little doubt that Railtrack is partly responsible. Two months ago the regulator informed the company that its failure appreciably to reduce the number of breakages was a breach of its licence. The Health and Safety Executive had warned that “the risk of derailment from a broken rail is likely to remain significant for some time to come.”

But whatever the immediate reasons for the crash might have been, the underlying causes predate Mr Corbett’s appointment by decades. The Beeching cuts brought to an end not only a widely accessible railway system, but also a management ethic which, for a few years at least, placed public well-being ahead of competing private interests. The haste with which the railway lands were sold and the decision to dynamite some of the bridges – ensuring that the cuts could not be reversed – suggest that a reduction in public spending was not the government’s only consideration.

Years later, the Tories’ motives for running down the railways also appeared to be mixed. When Mrs Thatcher announced that “nothing can stop the great car economy”, she meant it. Just as the traffic light intervals on the old Winchester road were increased in order to make the case for a bypass through Twyford Down more compelling, just as the ferries to the Isle of Skye were allowed to fall apart in order to generate public pressure for a privately financed bridge, so Britain’s railways were left to deteriorate to make their eventual privatisation seem more attractive.

As the network fell apart, so our faith in public provision waned, and our participation in the great car economy – socially fragmented, non-unionised and lucratively unsustainable as it was – increased. By the time privatisation was mooted, our suspicion of the government’s proposals was matched only by our loathing of British Rail.

The Conservatives’ fragmentation of the privatised network – with its accompanying diffusion of responsibility for safety – makes sense only as a strategy for impeding re-nationalisation. By insisting that regulation should be as light as possible, by withdrawing subsidies from the railways and pouring them into roads, they exposed British people to the dangers both of a dysfunctional rail network and of the far more hazardous cars in which we were forced to travel.

Privatising the railways both diffused and confused responsibility. Gerald Corbett’s fiduciary duty forced him to place the interests of his shareholders ahead of those of his passengers. While directors of companies can be imprisoned for failing to discharge their responsibility to keep the share price as high as possible, the Home Office’s new corporate manslaughter proposals would submit them to no more drastic penalty than disqualification for killing their customers. Money, in company law, is better protected than human life.

The current government seems to understand why our railways are failing, so why are its proposed solutions so timid? Soon after taking office, John Prescott rejected the idea of re-nationalisation, on the grounds that it would cost some £4 billion. Yet now he proposes to pour £60 billion into the privatised railways, while reclaiming only a limited amount of regulatory control. It is hard to see why the new public investment should not be reclassified as equity, endowing the government with a controlling financial stake in the network. It is still harder to see why it wants to do to air traffic control and the London Underground what the Tories did to the railways.

By loading the problems of our railways onto the shoulders of one man, we relieve the government of its responsibility to reclaim real public control over the way they are run. The people on the train that passed mine deserve solutions, not scapegoats.