You have to admit that there’s nothing, not even a royal wedding, that the British do better than a management cock-up.
The great rail timetable revision was already an Olympic-class act to set alongside other collectors’ items such as Big Ben and the crumbling Houses of Parliament, Grenfell Tower, NPfIT and Universal Credit among a number of major computerisation disasters, and of course the mother of them all, Brexit.
The story of a Newcastle to Reading cross-country train getting lost and ending up in Pontefract may have been a bit embroidered, but not the accounts of undelivered trains, untrained drivers, the wrong kind of holes for the masts bearing overhead cables on newly electrified lines, pantographs on trains that were too short to touch the power lines once they were installed, not to mention communications that could have been bettered by pigeon post between a hapless Department for Transport, Network Rail, where timetabling is centralised, and train operating companies which seemed not to be able to tell one end of their units from the other.
All this was bad enough, making the UK a laughing stock in modern European nations like France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and even Italy where efficient, on-time public transport is taken for granted rather than a matter for dazed congratulation (even with a strike on, the French SNCF does a better job of timekeeping than we do running normally). But the award of a CBE to the outgoing chief executive of Network Rail in the middle of what one commentator described as ‘the most chaotic, fundamental, and humiliating failure it has been my misfortune to witness in 40 years as a rail journalist’ took the biscuit, adding a grade-A PR disaster to the unending litany of operating failures. Do we laugh or cry?
Whatever, we shouldn’t be surprised. If there’s one sector that sums up all the debilitating British talent for dither, fudge, short-termism and political zigzag it is the railways. Even the excuses put forward for chronic underperformance and overcost are as rickety as the bus-on-bogies 'Sprinter' trains left over from the 1980s.
The fact that the UK’s rail network is the oldest and reputedly most complex in the world should have given us a priceless advantage in terms of both managerial expertise in running a railway and industrial expertise in building an industry around it.
But while France, for instance, singlemindedly electrified its network starting in the 1950s, and launched its high-speed network (with trains that were partly British designed) in 1981, the UK bumbled along on a mixture of steam, diesel (preferred, because it was cheaper) and various kinds of electrification until the 1970s. Even now only 40 per cent of the network is electrified, and as late as last year the government was cancelling long-promised projects to complete an ‘electric spine’ in Wales and the Midlands because it would cost too much. Some observers believe electrification is now so expensive that even for main lines it will never be completed.
The legacy of these stop-start projects and failure to invest long term is not just a network that is incoherent and overcomplex technologically (it sometimes seems surprising that it’s all standard gauge) but also a paucity of engineering knowhow that has to be recreated or reimported for every new programme. This is directly responsible for some of the timetabling chaos. Instead of experienced teams using familiar technology moving seamlessly from one electrification project to another, each has to be created anew every time. The result: huge time and cost overruns, leading to more cancellations and disruption. As for train-building innovation and capacity, it is now almost nil.
The final and perhaps biggest handicap for UK rail industry is its byzantine structure and governance, if it can be called that. Based on a mixture of ideology, political expediency and operating convenience, it features a sort-of-nationalised Network Rail that owns the infrastructure, in semi-permanent warfare (and expensive monthly legal negotiation) with train operating companies that have more regard for shareholder profits than passenger needs, all overseen by a jittery DfT that interferes at every turn. The result is a uniquely British muddle that once again manages to lock in the worst of both private and public sectors and the advantages of neither. As John Harris put it in The Guardian: ‘[It] is yet another example of one of the great ironies of recent history: that Thatcherite believers in the liberating wonders of markets have proved to be very good at creating byzantine, top-down, endlessly failing systems rather suggestive of the worst aspects of the old Soviet Union’. Small wonder that the UK rail industry’s operating costs are reckoned to be 40 per cent higher than in the rest of Europe.
There’s another irony. There is a respectable case for arguing that the broken-down physical infrastructure mirrors, and is at least partly responsible for, the social and poltical fracturing that divides the rest of the country, particularly the north that has suffered the brunt of the great rail timetable meltdown, from the better-provided capital. If the politicians had noticed, we might never have become embroiled in the management omnishambles that is Brexit, which will do not one jot to remedy the real grievances of the austerity-hit regions. Yes, many weary Britons would surely be tempted to vote for someone who just promised to make the trains run on time.