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.