David Hare’s “The Permanent Way” is most powerful for what it says about outsourcing

The cast of The Permanent Way. Image: Nobby Clark.

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. 


Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”

Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.