Forgive me, CityMetric readers, for what I am about to say, but it is, I fear, true: rail regulation is not a promising topic for the theatre. That was true even when The Permanent Way, David Hare’s play about the privatisation of the railways, was first staged in 2003, at a time when regulation and safety had been much in the news. It seems all the more so today, when the run of disasters he was writing about seems, thankfully, to be long behind us.
It was a surprise to find, then, that the revival, currently showing in The Vaults below Waterloo station, not only still works as a piece of theatre. It also still has much to say about the mess this country has let its infrastructure get into.
Though I’d never before seen the play stage staged, I had read the script. Hare’s focus on wonkish topics means he’s a writer whose plays work well on the page. And the play’s verbatim nature – the script is literally pieced together from interviews with passengers, politicians, maintenance crews and rail experts – means it’s as much an act of journalism as one of theatre. (Its title, incidentally, is an artefact of railway history: the permanent way is the track that replaced the temporary one used during construction.)
So I already knew the play’s core argument: that the 1996 rail privatisation was, in effect, an act of theft from the British people, which should have made us furious then and should make us all furious still.
Worse, it was one conducted by people who knew comically little about the things they were flogging to the highest bidder. We hear from ministers and investment bankers who see privatisation as a purely financial transaction rather than something that might actually affect real people. One of the funniest anecdotes related in the play concerns the Tory minister whose big idea was to force two trains to compete on speed, by leaving a station at roughly the same time and seeing which arrived first. The only slight problem is they could never figure out the over-taking.
What isn’t apparent from the page, though, is quite how emotional a play it is. It was written in the aftermath of no fewer than four fatal rail crashes on the lines around London, the worst of which (Ladbroke Grove, 5 October 1999) killed 31 people and injured over 400. In between the discussions of rail policy we hear from the victims of those accidents, and the families of those who died.
In one scene, a mother tells of the death of her adult son, while her suicidal husband finds it too hard to speak. In others, a woman talks about the victims’ support network she runs, wearing a mask throughout because her face was so badly scared in the crash. The author Nina Bawden relates the conversation she had with her husband as their settled down for the journey that was to end his life. All these testimonies are genuinely painful, and rendered all the more powerful from being staged beneath the tracks into Waterloo station, an environment in which you’re aware of real trains the whole time.
There’s another point being made by Hare’s play, more subtle than simply “privatisation bad”. It’s that the precise way the network was privatised has led to cut corners and a lack of accountability. Responsibility is split between the government, the train operators, the infrastructure operator, and the sub-contractors those other bodies rely on. Everyone evades responsibility, and justice is not forthcoming for the victims of those crashes: there is always somebody else to blame.
Derailments have been thankfully rare in the years since Hare’s play premiered, suggesting that the reforms which followed may have had some effect. But it’s hard to watch Hare’s play now and not see its echoes elsewhere. The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire is another incident of corporate manslaughter, in which privatisation and outsourcing have allowed public and private agencies to evade responsibility simply by blaming one another. Two years on, the victims of that are still waiting for justice, too.
The Permanent Way is on at the Vaults, beneath London Waterloo station, until 17 November.