A special edited and updated version of Rail Privatisation: A Timeline of Failures (below) – based on the design of British Rail’s 1979 ‘Go Direct by Inter-City‘ poster – features in A Better Railway for Britain: Bring Back British Rail’s first report, launched in October 2016.
Today marks 21 years since the enactment of the Railways Act (1993), on 1 April 1994, which unleashed rail privatisation on the poor unfortunate public. Since then, Britain’s privatised railways have been beset by a series of failures, scandals and fatal crashes, each at great expense to taxpayers.
19 September 1997 – A collision between two trains at Southall kills seven people and injures 139. A passenger train running at high speed with defective Automatic Warning System equipment, a fundamentally important safety system, passed a signal at ‘danger’ and collided with a freight train crossing its path. Great Western Trains was fined £1.5 million for violations of health and safety law relating to this accident.
1 December 1998 – A report by the National Audit Office into the flotation of the national railway infrastructure company, Railtrack, found that taxpayers lost £1.5 billion because of the government’s decision to ignore the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendation to sell its shares in stages, opting instead to sell them all at once.
5 October 1999 – A near head-on collision between two passenger trains at Ladbroke Grove, outside London Paddington station, kills 31 people and injures more than 52. A signal with a bad safety record was passed at ‘danger’. A poor standard of driver training by Thames Trains was cited as a major contributory factor.
17 October 2000 – A train running at high speed derails at Hatfield when a rail affected by rolling contact fatigue fractures under its wheels. Four passengers were killed and 70 were injured. The crash exposed the major stewardship shortcomings of the privatised Railtrack plc and the failings of the regulatory oversight of the company (principally, failure to ensure that it had a good knowledge of the condition of its assets) which ultimately triggered its partial renationalisation. Following the crash, Railtrack imposed more than 1,200 emergency speed restrictions across its network, since it did not have the knowledge to predict where rolling contact fatigue might hit next.
24 October 2000 – Connex loses its South Central franchise after a decision by the Strategic Rail Authority to re-let the franchise following criticism of Connex’s poor customer service and poor financial management.
7 October 2001 – In the face of severe financial difficulties, Railtrack plc is placed into railway administration by the Labour government’s Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers. This leads to an explosion of costs and a severe drop in performance. Railtrack was subsequently replaced by Network Rail.
10 May 2002 – A train derails at Potters Bar, killing seven people and injuring 76. A poorly maintained set of points was to blame, the maintenance of which was the responsibility of the private sector railway maintenance contractor Jarvis (who had tried to blame the accident on ‘sabotage’). Eight years later, Jarvis and Network Rail (having taken on Railtrack’s liabilities) were both charged under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Network Rail subsequently took track maintenance back in-house.
27 June 2003 – The Connex South Eastern franchise is terminated by the Strategic Rail Authority, citing the company’s poor performance and financial management.
15 December 2006 – GNER is stripped of its East Coast franchise by the Department for Transport, having fallen into financial difficulties and unable to meet the terms of its franchise.
13 November 2009 – National Express gives up the East Coast franchise (which it had taken over from GNER) owing to financial difficulties, having accumulated more than £1 billion of debt. The failure of this franchise deprived the Department for Transport of between £330 million and £380 million of revenue.
15 August 2012 – The Department for Transport announces FirstGroup plc as the winner of the InterCity West Coast franchise, prompting the incumbent franchise holder, Virgin, to seek a judicial review of the franchise decision.
3 October 2012 – The government announces the cancellation of the InterCity West Coast franchise competition after finding significant technical flaws in the bidding process, rescinding its decision to award the franchise to FirstGroup. The Public Accounts Committee found that civil servants had made “fundamental errors” in the way that the risks for each bid had been calculated, leading to the default surety required of bidders being too low. The government reimbursed the four bidders for all costs incurred; this amounted to £39.7 million, with a further £4.9 million paid to FirstGroup as reimbursement of their mobilisation costs. In the ensuing shambles, numerous incumbent franchise holders were directly awarded extensions to their franchises instead of opening them up to tender. So much for competition!
17 December 2014 – A report from the Public Accounts Committee is severely critical of the Department for Transport’s inept handling of the procurement of new trains for the Intercity Express Programme and Thameslink. The DfT had chosen to break away from previous procurement arrangements and carry out the procurement by itself, despite having no previous experience in this area.
3 April 2015 – The private train operator West Coast Railways has its operator’s licence suspended by Network Rail amid concerns over the company’s ability to perform its safety obligations. This action followed an incident on 7 March 2015, when a steam-hauled train operated by West Coast Railways passed a signal at ‘danger’ after the driver had switched off vital train protection systems, narrowly avoiding a collision with a passenger train running at 100 mph.
Is it anyone wonder we’re all shouting Bring Back British Rail?