A new report explains who is to blame for this summer’s rail meltdown

Masks of transport secretary Chris Grayling, who is definitely not to blame for anything ever. Image: Getty.

Last May, the British rail network introduced what had been sold as the biggest timetable shake-up in a generation, and promptly fell over. Commuters had been promised new, more frequent journey opportunities thanks to new or upgraded cross-city infrastructure in London and Manchester. What they got instead was delays, cancellations and, eventually, a new, new timetable – which improved reliability largely by giving up pretending that a lot of services had ever existed at all.

In the weeks that followed, everyone involved played pass-the-parcel with the blame for this catastrophe, downplaying the role of their own mistakes while talking up those of others. Unions blamed train operating companies. Northern and Govia Thameslink in turn blamed Network Rail, the government agency responsible for the infrastructure. So did Transport Secretary Chris Grayling who, with the political instincts and sense of personal responsibility for which he’s famous, said that he did not, in fact, run the railways.  

To the first approximation, everyone blamed everyone else, and the buck – like so many Thameslink services attempting to make up for delays – stopped nowhere. The outgoing Network Rail boss Mark Carne, meanwhile, accepted a CBE. 

Yesterday, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) published its interim inquiry into the causes of this mess – and it concluded, in short, that everyone was right. Network Rail did fall behind on infrastructure improvements, and failed to come up with a back-up plan, wrongly believing it could make up the time. GTR and Northern were not aware of or prepared for problems, and failed to keep passengers informed of their intentions. Both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the ORR itself failed in their oversight roles, accepting assurances from the industry that everything would be fine instead of checking and discovering that it wasn’t. Nobody took charge: everybody is to blame.


There is a danger, however, that if everybody is to blame then nobody will be held to account. In a systemic failure of this sort, everyone can point to somebody else in the chain and suggest that the real culprit is over there. (It’s tempting to see parallels here with the last decade’s financial crash, but perhaps that’s a track it’s best not to follow.) “The present industry arrangements do not support clarity of decision making,” the ORR’s chair Stephen Glaister said. “It was unclear who was responsible for what. Nobody took charge.” 

In order to fix all that, yesterday morning, the DfT launched yet another review, this one the biggest review of the structures of the rail industry since privatisation in the 1990s Speaking on the Today programme, Grayling made clear that one possible outcome would be to replace the 20-year-old infrastructure/operator split with a regionally integrated structure, of the sort used on the Japanese railways. Another would be wider use of the Transport for London model, in which the infrastructure provider effectively doubles as the commissioning body to which operators report. He has ruled out nationalisation, but then he would, wouldn’t he.

Any one of those options might have improved things last May, by improving trust and communications when things went wrong, and making it clear which heads would roll if they weren’t fixed again. But there’s another way of doing that which also leaps to mind. If the transport secretary were to fear for their job when the railways got into trouble, then their department would be less likely to accept industry bosses’ assurances that everything was going just fine. This line of accountability, for some reason, is not one Grayling seems keen to strengthen.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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