PAUL WILENIUS: Labour promised a new golden
age for rail. But five years on, we're still waiting. John Prescott took
a gamble on Railtrack, and lost. Now everybody's looking to Stephen Byers
to get on with the job and get the trains moving.
SIR ALASTAIR MORTON: Saying that we're going to
make the railways feel better by just operating them with more zest and
enthusiasm in the next few years and a lick of paint and a bit of expenditure
there, is not going to achieve any more than John Prescott's exhortations
achieved frankly, they need investment.
GEORGE COX: The question is the delivery,
at the moment so much in terms of our national infrastructure is not being
put right and people haven't got confidence that the government knows how
to implement the things it wants to do.
WILENIUS: Tony Blair has a new
top priority. To put Britain's crumbling rail system back on the tracks.
This is putting enormous pressure on Transport Secretary Stephen Byers
, to find a replacement for Railtrack , but also to decide the fate of
plans to partly privatise London Underground. But government policy is
facing the same blight that has dogged trains in recent years - delays,
Paul Gentleman, co-founder of the Better Rail Action Group, knows a lot
about delays. He's an advertising executive, and has been travelling from
Swindon to London every day on the train for eight years, at a cost of
more than five-thousand pounds a year. Following disasters like Hatfield,
many rail users are increasingly fed up with the state of the rail network.
And now he says his protest group is gaining momentum, and the backing
of a new breed of middle class militants.
PAUL GENTLEMAN: We are approaching journey times
now which are longer than they were in Victorian times - why is that? The
passengers want to know. And that's the frustration behind the passengers.
That's why our group's really come about. The March 1st boycott has been
brought about because enough is enough now. We've put up with this for
long enough. What we want is the general commuter rail travelling public
to boycott the rail network for a day, we've got eighty-five per cent public
support with that and I think it will be bigger than the fuel tax protest.
PAUL WILENIUS: But patching up the crumbling
rail system isn't enough. Last week the Strategic Rail Authority unveiled
a ten-year year plan to pump thirty-three-point-five billion pounds of
public money into the aging system, with a similar amount coming from the
private sector. Many industry experts say it's not enough.
MORTON: The government is now accepting
to a degree it was denying last Spring that the railway situation is dire
and that there's a lot to be done and Stephen Byers talks of tough decisions,
well the really tough decision to be taken is to accept that a lot of money
has to be invested, not just spent annually on maintenance but invested
in improvement and development of the railways if we are to have a network
that is safer, bigger and better, which is what we're all asking for.
WILENIUS: Many in the City and
business believe the government's current plans to help rail passengers
are fatally flawed, because they rely on private investment. They say that
won't be possible without a big increase in the income the industry gets
either from fares or government subsidy. It'll be even harder winning back
the trust of the private sector after killing off Railtrack.
MORTON: Frankly the private sector
doesn't finance uncertainty except in return for a significant payment,
it charges for risk, and if the risk at any point becomes too large or
too uncertain, it simply says, hold on I don't think we will do this until
things become clearer. I think that we're in that situation right now,
the private sector is simply saying what is the future structure we're
being asked to fund, until we know a lot more about it and its sources
of income we can't do it.
COX: Now before I put my
money in I'm now looking for some reassurance. So there will be a risk
premium on this and I don't think it's just with Railtrack I think this
now applies to any government project that you want the private sector
to be involved in.
WILENIUS: And in the short term
the government's critics say that their action over Railtrack is making
the situation even worse, not better.
THERESA MAY MP: Things are not improving since
Stephen Byers put Railtrack into administration, in fact they're getting
worse. Passengers have seen something like an overall forty-five per cent
increase in train delays since Railtrack was put into administration and
of course there are an awful lot of demoralised staff in Railtrack because
over ninety per cent of employees held shares, they've seen the value of
those shares wiped, wiped out by what Stephen Byers did, for some of them
they were their life savings, and they're feeling pretty sore about the
action that the government took.
WILENIUS: Guiding Railtrack out
of administration and back into some new form will be Stephen Byers greatest
test. Easing it into a 'not for profit' company, seems the preferred route.
But many Labour MPs feel that the right direction is to go for renationalisation.
JANE GRIFFITHS MP: 'Not for profit' for Railtrack
wouldn't really be my personal preference, what would be my personal preference,
and it could include 'not for profit' for Railtrack, is to say we must
have public control of all our transport infrastructure. We must have
sticks to beat train companies with and the successor to Railtrack and
whoever else is involved but we must have ways not just to shout at transport
operators but to be in partnership in a way where they have to listen.
WILENIUS: Some industry experts
are also worried that unless it has a government guarantee a 'not for profit'
company would not have the financial clout to get the railways back up
to full speed.
MORTON: If the government is willing
to guarantee the debts of the new Railtrack, whatever it is, then there's
no problem - that's a triple-A credit and it can raise plenty of money
but that's actually a new nationalised entity, why not say so. If however
the company is not going to have a, enjoy a government guarantee for its
debts then it's got to earn enough profit to accumulate enough reserve
quickly enough and certainly enough, and that's the important point, certainly
enough to convince lenders that they will get their interest and they will
get their repayment. They're not in the charity business.
WILENIUS: But no matter which route
the government chooses, one thing's certain, there'll be more delays. It
may take almost two years to get the new company up and running.
MAY: When the plug was
pulled on Railtrack the government said it would only be in administration
for three to six months. We're well over three months down the line now
and there's no sign of it being brought out of administration. I fear that
it's going to be in administration 'til the end of this year - indeed there
some commentators who say it could be well into two-thousand-and-three
before the company comes out of administration.
WILENIUS: Richard Branson's Virgin
Trains is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in new trains and rolling
stock. But it is only one of twenty-five train operating companies. Some
business leaders believe it's this fragmentation of the railways, not the
question of ownership that's the real problem.
COX: One of the problems
with the whole rail scene is not privatisation but the way it was done,
overly fragmented. You've got the track separated from the operating companies,
the maintenance separated from the track, the sub-contractors for maintenance
separated from maintenance. You're spending all your time negotiating with
other parties involved, your profit concerns is concerned with those negotiations
not with serving the customer. So the whole thing needs a much greater
degree of integration and a much simpler structure than we're going for
at present, and I don't see at present any plans to change that.
WILENIUS: And it's that fragmentation
of the railways which many people blame for the rash of strikes now facing
rail travellers all over the country. There'll be more this week, as guards
and station staff fight for pay rises to catch up with train drivers. And
there's a growing threat of even more misery to come, as union leaders
are forecasting walkouts in the coming weeks and months.
BOB CROW: So there's a real reality
out there that more action could take place directly as a result of the
fragmentation of the industry because different people being paid different
pay and conditions leads to resentment, leads to jealousy and it leads
to pressure being put on our trade union to make sure that we get the same
for all members who do the same job. I think there's a real possibility
this will continue spiralling and, could spiral out of control unless some
action is taken very quickly.
WILENIUS: Stephen Byers has taken
pride in his action over Railtrack, as many Labour MPs see it as rolling
back a key part of the Thatcherite legacy of privatisation. But many people
are waiting to see if he will go further, and kill off the long awaited
plan to partly privatise the London tube.
GAVIN STRANG MP: I personally hope that the PPP
as it's called for London Underground will not go ahead, I do believe that
the arrangements are too complex. I hope that Stephen Byers, and he's
indicated this as a real possibility, will in fact abandon the whole, the
WILENIUS: London's tube system
is straining at the seams. The government wants to bring in a new partnership
to feed a potential thirteen billion pounds of public and private investment
into the rundown system. But the scheme is still delayed and now Stephen
Byers is waiting for a report early next month on whether it's value for
money. But there are many who feel it would be a disaster if the plan
went ahead as it is.
KEN LIVINGSTONE MP: Looked at objectively no-one
in their right mind would go ahead given the contract's got a rate of return
of thirty-five per cent and it replicates exactly the same problems that
we saw at Hatfield, with the loss of life we saw at Hatfield, by separating
the running of the trains from the maintenance of the track. Everybody
already who has looked at this has already come to the conclusion, every
independent expert and assessment has been this is not value for money,
that the scheme should be dropped. The only organisations that have ever
said the PPP's a good idea are those employed by the government to say
WILENIUS: There's a lot at stake
for the government, as Stephen Byers wrestles with the future of Britain's
railways. He's already admitted that Labour will be judged at the next
election on improvements in rail services. But many political figures believe
that unless things start getting better soon, that judgement may not be
to their liking.
The views of angry commuters are
being taken seriously by the Transport Secretary. Last Wednesday Paul Gentlemen
arrived at Westminster for a meeting where he presented his group's proposals
to improve rail services to Stephen Byers.
WILENIUS: How did it go?
GENTLEMAN: It was very constructive. He
listened intently to what we've got to say, and he's gonna take into consideration
the ten-point plan that we've put to him.
WILENIUS: And what happens with
the protest planned for March 1st?
GENTLEMAN: We've stated that we wish to
call the protest off, but only if our ten-point plan is met. That hasn't
been met yet, so the protest goes ahead.
GRIFFITHS: I think it's got to
be at least be seen for there to be progress by the time of the next election,
we've got to see better railways, we've got to see more investment, and
it doesn't just have to be put in, people have to know that it's there
and feel the difference when they make their journeys otherwise we'll be
STRANG: If in fact we fail to make
progress in the transport field and in particular, if we fail to begin
to show real benefits in the rail system then the electorate can easily
turn on us.
WILENIUS: So further delays to
planned improvements for the railways and London tube could be politically
dangerous, as rail passengers are also voters and Tony Blair knows how
important they could be.
LIVINGSTONE: There will be no visible improvement
on the Underground at the time of the next mayoral election if the PPP
is imposed. And there most probably won't be any at the time of the next
general election and there'll be huge political consequences for the government
if people are still travelling in the present conditions when they all
come up for election in, in three or four years. I think if PPP goes ahead
you could see perhaps ten or a dozen Labour MPs lose their seats in London.
WILENIUS: So the political stakes
are high. The government is under growing pressure from the travelling
public to show it has the vision and the ability to find a route out of
MORTON: Stephen Byers has said
enough of vision, let's get on with the job. There's a problem, this government
like many governments before it, doesn't think long term, railways are
a long term problem, hospitals probably are as well but railways certainly
COX: I think Stephen Byers
has got a problem of restoring confidence and credibility, I don't know
of anyone who's saying at present well at least Stephen Byers has got it
WILENIUS: For many weary rail passengers
the government's plans are too little, too late. So Stephen Byers will
have his work cut out to find the right course quickly, if the railways
are ever going to have a new golden age.