Back in June, I wrote about how the way that rail privatisation has proceeded put Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, in what appeared to be a deeply unfortunate position.
On the one hand, he was politically accountable to Parliament for the performance of the railways, a legacy of the nationalising logic of the 1945 Labour Government. On the other, as Secretary of State very few of the actual decisions regarding how the railways are operated have anything to do with him, instead being made by operating companies, or Network Rail, or other such independent, arms-length bodies.
It’s therefore no surprise that today’s report from the Office of Rail and Road concludes that: “The present industry arrangements do not support clarity of decision making.”
The Department for Transport has thus commissioned the former head of British Airways to conduct what the Financial Times has called a “sweeping review” of the network. At a bare minimum, this ought to clarify the role of the Department and the Secretary of State in overseeing the sector and clarify who Parliament – and the public – can hold to account when things go wrong.
In fact, it seems to have been given a rather more ambitious remit to consider wholesale reform. If the FT has it right, the review will apparently be tasked to “examine integration between train and track”.
This could, if done right, help to end the disconnect created when John Major decided to pursue ‘horizontal’ privatisation in the 1990s, selling the right to operate passenger franchises whilst keeping the track and infrastructure in state hands. This was a very different model to the vertically-integrated, pre-nationalisation railways, where companies owned the track and stations as well as operating the trains.
Advocates of the second model (or long-term franchising arrangements which more closely resemble it) argue that this created both the means and the incentives for private operators to take plan and invest for the long-term, rather than trying to maximise returns on short-term franchises (for which they too-often have under-bid) by squeezing passengers. It could be a very worthwhile reform.
However, as the Times‘ transport correspondent points out, over the past five years there have been “at least seven” other reviews. Today’s announcement is no guarantee that this Government, embattled as it is on so many other fronts, is seriously considering any attempt at serious railway reform.
Moreover, even if it chose to do so the effects would not be felt for years. Yet if the Government is to draw some of the appeal out of Jeremy Corbyn’s calls for nationalisation – not to mention assuage public anger over disruptions and fare increases and offset the political damage done by the Government’s decisions to abandon rail electrification projects in Wales and the North – it needs an answer much sooner than that.