HomeRail NewsTaking ownership: Privatisation and the rail industry

Taking ownership: Privatisation and the rail industry

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Andy Milne considers the success of the mix of individual staff power with private sector dash as the rail industry prepares for more change next year.

Time and again the rail industry finds itself in a quandary when it considers the question of ownership. Everyone has a view as to what should be done about the railway. Popular prejudice reaches right up into the realms of show business and informs the counsels of opportunist politicians.

Old battles between left and right are rehearsed with all the passion of sectarian loathing. However, the question of ownership is germane to the wider debate of what an economy is for, who should run it and why.

Dr. Beeching

Next year marks three important anniversaries for the railway industry. In 1963 Dr Beeching published his ill starred Re- Shaping of British Railways report, recommending massive closures. Twenty years later came the Serpell Report; it was actually sent to Margaret Thatcher on 20th December 1982, proposing the truncation of the industry to a handful of arterial routes. Then in 1993 Sir John Major drove through a bill to privatise the railways.

In this issue Graeme Bickerdike takes RailStaff’s positive messaging to new heights by reporting on the good doctor’s inadvertent legacy of a network of cycle ways. Next year Colin Garratt of Milepost 921⁄2, in an eight part series, looks at the passage of events since railway privatisation.

2013 itself will be a pivotal year for railways. High Speed Two, if it clears the final appeals in court, will forge ahead. Reports by Sam Laidlaw and Richard Brown into what went wrong with West Coast franchising and what the trouble is with franchising more generally will set the industry up for further changes hopefully marking the end of uncertainty for railway investors – private and public.

Many papers carry riders asking readers not to use what is reported as the basis of an investment decision. At RailStaff we always believed right from 1997 onwards in the future triumph of the railway industry.

We recommend taking that job with a railway company and investing in the myriad combines operating in the booming rail sector. For railways continue to confound the political polarities of our time. The industry has survived ill considered government intervention and the occasional private sector let down. To understand the future of railways it is helpful to place them in the context of our times.

A better society

The late Michael Foot – arguably the least understood of the Labour Party’s post-war leaders – took as his starting point the planned economy of the Second World War. It is not just peppery colonels who regaled bored teenagers in the tap room with tales of how we pulled together; Foot believed it gave us a glimpse of how a better society might operate if people put the greater good above personal gain.

The element missing from the post-war political settlement in Britain was the sense of needing to face a common foe. The Soviet Union, only recently an ally, was not perceived as an enemy on a par with Hitler. In fact many in what passed for a ruling class felt communism was the true answer to mindless fascism and irresponsible big business.

The Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s swept away much of the statist intervention espoused by the post-war Atlee administration. Everything from telephones to water and electricity was privatised. The Stock Market was deregulated and the energies of private capital set free. Thatcher based her politics on the belief that the individual knew best how to look after themselves.

What neither politician grasped was the need to take risks in business as an individual. The sorry record of our recession is a catalogue of risk averse civil servants and their counterparts in the private sector. Whoever would have imagined a Labour administration bailing out a bank? Financial risk prediction is at the heart of the current franchising controversy.

Railway staff take risks every day

By contrast railway staff take risks every day. A BTP officer is at risk. A guard on a late service is at risk A track worker despite huge advance in safety management deals with risk as part of the job. The triumph of the individual over adversity is best attested by the RailStaff Awards and the stories featured in this magazine. These record people saved by railway staff on platforms, lifetimes spent helping colleagues and new ideas panning out for the good of the unknowing public.

Building a career in railways is a life time commitment and immensely rewarding. However the work is often difficult, lonely and time sensitive. This is also an industry were working people go right to the top. David Franks – recently appointed to run Irish Railways started life as a platform clerk. Pino de Rosa head of Bridgeway Consulting started out as a railway bricklayer.


Railways confound old fashioned views of class division. Moreover the thinking behind the Network Rail route management reforms is pushing power down from the top and out onto the actual railways. Local staff manage decisions for the good of the network.

Similarly successful train companies are those where staff take the lead in developing new ideas and are encouraged to put them in place. Alliancing is the new watchword – controllers working together for the common good.

This is a great industry to join if you come from overseas or have been bundled out of another profession. Railways draw upon the talents of 100 countries and cultures; we see school teachers, soldiers and students joining up bringing a well spring of new ideas, ingenuity and enthusiasm.

It is this espirit de corps that has kept railways going through the dark times of the 80s and 90s and has resulted in double the amount of passengers being carried on half the mileage of track.

Perhaps Michael Foot would have delighted in an industry where staff so often put the common good and sense of purpose above personal gain. Sturdy entrepreneurs of years gone by would enthuse at a society where the fixers and thinkers are out there leading from the front.

Both would enjoy the RailStaff Awards which highlights the hard work and brilliance of our staff and the companies and organisations they represent. This is an industry with a future like no other. Therefore, at the least, railways must evolve a structure that makes better use of private sector investors and capitalises the inherent talents of the work force. It is right that the people in railways should take more decisions as Sir David Higgins, the head of Network Rail, has urged.

Entrepreneurial daring

We have seen over franchising the confusion that results from entrusting too much power to inexperienced civil servants whose first loyalty is not to the railways. It would be better by far to evolve a structure that was run by railway people for the railways.

In this pragmatism the railway sees the joining together of individual responsibility with entrepreneurial daring. Our leaders may wish to reflect over the holidays that despite Beeching, Serpell and Major this industry travels an iron road, of its own construction, out of failure and despair.

It is an iron-hard tough road but it shows us how industry and the economies of the future might work for the good of all. 2013 will be a good year for the railways – depend upon it.


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