Who is in charge of the clattering train? The conventional, indeed constitutional, answer is Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport. Freeborn Britons exercise their ancient right to abuse Grayling whenever anything goes wrong with the trains, which on some lines is a daily occurrence.
There is also a clamour, in many quarters, for renationalising the railway, without generally explaining how this would be done. Does it mean putting more power in the hands of Grayling and his not outstandingly successful team of officials in Horseferry Road?
And isn’t Network Rail already in public hands? But it was that organisation’s inability to manage the Bolton electrification which precipitated so many of the recent troubles during the timetable changes in the North. On a busy network, if one part of the line has not yet been electrified, and diesel trains still have to be run over it, that means those trains are not available for use elsewhere.
So the new head of Network Rail, Andrew Haines, is in many respects a more significant figure than Grayling. To him falls the task of getting a grip on a vast and ponderous bureaucracy which goes unsung when all is well – how many newspaper articles have you seen celebrating its much improved safety record? – and is condemned by the train operators when things go wrong.
But to Grayling falls, certainly, the task of political leadership. He is the man who should be celebrating the extraordinary growth in rail traffic, so that the management of decline has been replaced by the question of how to harness success.
His approach to this task is not always inspiring. He has this week announced that he wishes to replace the retail price index with the consumer price index as the determinant of the annual rise in regulated fares.
If this were done, fares next January would rise by 2.5 per cent instead of the 3.2 per cent by which they are actually going to rise. In a single year, the difference would not be great. An annual season ticket from Brighton to London Victoria, which currently costs £4,332, would be £39 cheaper.
Such is the magic of compound interest that over a ten-year period, the difference would be very much greater. But there is no denying that in political terms, this announcement suffered from seeming timid and technocratic, offering no immediate relief to commuters, and little in the way of long-term hope.
The only people to react strongly to it were the rail unions. Mick Cash, head of the RMT, sounded quite cross about the Transport Secretary’s suggestion that the CPI, which generally comes out lower than the RPI, should also be used when calculating wage rises: “If Chris Grayling seriously thinks that front-line rail workers are going to pay the price for his gross incompetence and the greed of the private train companies he’s got another thing coming.”
One should recognise that Aslef and the RMT have been brilliant at negotiating high rates for their members. Many of the Spanish practices which prevailed in the days of British Rail – special payments for this and that – were bought out by the private train operators, so that a driver can now earn £75,000 a year for a four-day week, with a very decent pension to follow.
The operators cannot afford strikes, and nor can Grayling, and the unions have been astute at pitching their demands just below what would be intolerable, while playing off the different companies, none of which wants to lose drivers, against each other.
There has been almost incessant talk, in the last few years, about driverless cars. Why not about driverless trains? As Ross Clark points out in The Daily Telegraph, these have already operated safely for 31 years on the Docklands Light Railway, and are a simpler proposition than driverless cars.
As a person of conservative disposition, I cannot repress a feeling of instinctive sympathy with any trade which suddenly finds itself redundant. Drivers of stagecoaches found themselves in a sorry predicament when the railways came along.
But the Conservative Party will not thrive by adopting Luddism as its cry. That can be left to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. For Conservatives, the way to make the railway reliable, affordable, and to increase its capacity, is to modernise it. Perhaps at the party conference Grayling can announce a bolder programme of innovation than has yet occurred to him.