Competition on the railways

So the EU requirement that infrastructure and trains be separately owned was key. With three or more bodies sharing responsibility for rail services there is plenty of room for blame shifting.

In the early days of privatisation a passenger train was derailed south of Birmingham. A freight train, heading in the opposite direction on an adjacent track ran into it and there was a battle between the two train operating companies, Railtrack and the companies responsible for leasing and maintaining the locomotives and rolling stock.

At about the same time a passenger train was derailed at Kings Cross, just as it was entering the tunnels immediately outside the station. A station manager immediately walked down off the platform to go and help protect the train and the passengers. Immediately he was told by a member of Railtrack to return to the station. Clearly his presence, as a potential expert witness, was considered undesirable. His professional railwayman’s concern was to care for passengers and trains; safety first we would call it.

Before Beeching decimated the rail network, there could be competition: London to Birmingham, Paddington – Snow Hill or Euston – New Street. Nottingham had three routes to London from which to choose and so did Edinburgh, and potential for competition.

When mistakes are made on the railways they can be catastrophic for the people concerned and expensive for the community. Those who run the trains must share the responsibility for the railways with colleagues who maintain tracks and signalling. Setting them apart so that they blame each other and the sort of fiasco we are facing with the current timetable changes is no surprise.

Competition on the railways should be between routes, of which we have too few, not between train operating companies and track maintenance companies where the only true competition is likely to take place between PR departments and lawyers.

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