Chris Grayling isn’t privatising the railways – but his weird partisanship will hurt them all the same

We couldn't bring ourselves to use a picture of Chris Grayling for the third day running. Image: Getty.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling this week announced that he was going to give UK rail infrastructure body Network Rail a whipping. Its Oxford-Cambridge East West Rail project will now be built by a separate organisation, and future rail franchises will be more “vertically integrated”, with “joined-up teams” running tracks and trains.

The news was reported as a return to private control of infrastructure, much to the Telegraph’s glee and the Guardian’s horror. But to understand what this means requires a quick recap on how the railways in Great Britain work.

I’ve written about this in these pages before, but here’s the quick version. Network Rail owns and runs the tracks. Grayling’s Department for Transport (DfT) is in charge of franchised train operating companies (TOCs), which compete by tendering – like an auction – for the obligation to run a level of service defined by the DfT on a set of routes defined by the DfT, in exchange for a monopoly of services on those routes. TOCs pay Network Rail to use its tracks. Some tracks are only used by one TOC; the busiest tracks are used by several TOCs at the same time.

Freight and open-access operating companies, which are all for-profit, just pay Network Rail directly to use its tracks. All freight and open access services run over track that’s also used by one or more TOCs. Network Rail is in charge of the links between the different companies involved: it manages the national timetable; it calculates who’s running trains where and how much they need to pay; and ,when things go wrong, how much it costs and whose fault it is.

Like Newton’s laws, this simplified model is wrong in various ways that don’t matter here. The only important one, which I’ll come back to, is that some TOCs are commissioned by the devolved governments, rather than the DfT.

This system, which has been going in its current form for about 15 years, has various advantages and disadvantages over the previous ways that railways in GB have been structured.

Its advantages over the immediately previous system with TOCs and privately-owned tracks are extremely clear. The infrastructure is no longer owned by property developers, but by a public sector body; Network Rail has tended to be safety- and performance-led rather than financial results-led; and it has rebuilt the nationwide operational expertise and leadership that was lost under Railtrack.

Its advantages over the system before that, where British Rail was a single national public sector operator, are harder to judge, thanks to the major changes in technology, costs, rider numbers and public expectations over the last 25 years. But we do know that it’s moving far more people, making them much less late, and killing or injuring them much less, than British Rail did, while also carrying more freight.

(As an aside, it’s also paying its staff much better than they were paid in the BR days. My personal view is that this is a positive: good pay is entirely fair enough for a highly skilled, safety-critical industry that requires deeply antisocial hours. It’s noticeable that very few of the people who claim otherwise tend to follow through and quit their 9-5s for railway jobs.)


The main problem is that the current setup is expensive. Net government subsidy paid – although it’s fallen a lot over the last few years – is still much higher than for British Rail. And although services run well, that isn’t much comfort for delayed commuters paying high fares (even though those fares are high mostly because the subsidy remains low compared to other countries).

So how will Grayling’s plans help? The short answer is they won’t do much at all. Aligning NR and TOC operating teams has been tried on South West Trains and in Scotland, with uninspiring results; and it’s unlikely the new initiative will be much different. Although old hands drone on about vertical integration, the track operator must be able to work with multiple train operators, and NR is set up to do this as efficiently as possible

Similarly, the East West Rail announcement is being spun as a change – but as a separate agency with some public and some private funding, it’s actually similar to most major new-build projects like HS1, Crossrail and HS2. It’s likely that, as with HS1, Network Rail will take over operations once the line is complete.

The most worrying part of Grayling’s speech was actually rather hidden: he has ruled out further devolution of franchise commissioning to local governments. This change has had a positive impact on services wherever it’s been carried out, most noticeably London and Scotland – so why would anyone oppose it?

The answer was revealed starkly in London’s Evening Standard in a leaked letter Grayling wrote to former London mayor Boris Johnson in 2013: because he doesn’t want Labour to get control of things, and most English cities are Labour-supporting, most of the time.

So the lack of reality behind Grayling’s latest Network Rail announcements is a relief. But his pettiness and spite is far more worrying for the long-term future of the industry.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.