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Chris Grayling

Putting it diplomatically, not every minister necessarily wants the job they’ve got. Some accept roles as a way of getting on, eventually, to something they think more interesting, or more reflective of their talents. Others find themselves faced with the choice of either being moved into a department that they feel is beneath them or slung out on their ear, and choose the compensated humiliation of demotion over the cold humiliation of the sack.

But some ministers are in jobs they actively want – dealing with a policy area for which they have a yen, a topic they hold forth about in their spare time and issues which they believe to be both important and soluble. One such minister is Chris Grayling, who seems to be enjoying his gig as Secretary of State for Transport more than anyone really ought to enjoy transport.

That doesn’t make it an easy job. Notwithstanding the extraordinary boom in rail passenger numbers in recent years, and the modernisation of large parts of the system, the railways suffer serious practical and political problems. Practical, in the form of the ongoing disastrous mismanagement by Southern, disruption to services from works, strikes and over-crowding. Political, in the form of passenger discontent – and the ever-present demand to renationalise, despite the progress made since privatisation.

The two challenges aren’t separate. Passenger discontent rises when practical problems make their lives miserable – for example when over-running works disrupt their journeys. Grayling’s announcement yesterday of a series of reforms is intended to try to address both.

The Transport Secretary correctly identifies that it’s a problem that Network Rail, who manage the track, don’t deal with the customers whose lives they make worse when they get it wrong. Understandably, passengers blame the train companies, often unaware of the odd distinction behind the scenes. And this lack of accountability doesn’t incentivise Network Rail to do a better job in future. Sometimes, after much contractual wrangling, they have to pay fines to the train operator affected, but afterwards they each go back to their separate offices running what they believe to be separate enterprises, even though they are meant to be delivering the same eventual service.

Grayling’s aim, therefore, is “bringing back together the operation of track and train”.

Except it isn’t quite as simple as all that. For the obvious reason – namely that it would be a disaster – he doesn’t intend to reintroduce British Rail. But nor can he simply bundle each section of Network Rail’s line into the private operating companies (even if he wanted to take on the Parliamentary obstacle course of doing so), because plenty of lines serve more than one operator.

His solution is a combination of two different approaches.

The first is a collaborative approach, by which the operators will be expected to form a “partnership” with Network Rail in their relevant areas. In some cases this will mean one operator and one patch of Network Rail, in others it will mean more complex arrangements between several outfits. There won’t be a single standardised model, and each partnership will hammer out a working relationship which suits their circumstances. What Grayling wants them to have in common is a much closer working relationship – shifting them from separate organisations in separate offices to working literally side by side, with one person clearly in charge and responsible for the good running of that tract of the railway.

In effect, this appears to be more about changing the culture and day to day management of the railways than about changing the rules or conditions by which they are run. It won’t happen overnight – apparently the requirement to form such partnerships will be brought in as the various contracts are put out to tender again – so we will presumably learn more in time about what, if any, sharpening of the penalties for letting down passengers might accompany more direct accountability.

The second approach is a more literal bringing together of track and train – by putting one company in charge of both. Rather than diving in wholesale, Grayling has approved a trial of this method in the reopening of the old Cambridge-Oxord line (the connection between the two cities is a theme readers will recognise from the Prime Minister’s “modern industrial strategy”). A new rail operator – East-West – will “secure the permissions needed to reopen the line, and then attract private sector involvement to help build it and operate the track and the trains together.”

It’s easy to see why the simplicity of this unitary approach appeals. There are hints from Grayling that, if it succeeds, he would like to implement the model elsewhere in the system. But it obviously couldn’t work everywhere. For example, the East Coast main line carries the trains of nine different passenger operators, in addition to the various goods services which are normally forgotten. It wouldn’t be possible therefore to just put one operator in charge of the track – or, if you did, you would utterly skew the pitch for the others.

This is a sign of a vexed question in any rail reform – how does competition fit in? As Tony Lodge has written on this site, while competition on one line – ie between different operators running trains on the same track – has been too limited in its scope, where it has been achieved it has brought benefits to passengers. Indeed, the Competition and Markets Authority wants to see more of it. This new partnership model will have to strike a careful balance to ensure that good co-ordination doesn’t spill over into central planning, and thus stifle competition. Pure unitary ownership of each line would of course kill competition completely.

What we result, I suspect, is a patchwork of different system in different places – unitary track and train operations where that is feasible, but looser partnerships on the bulk of the system. The degree to which it will solve the railways’ problems – both practical and political – won’t be seen for some years.

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