|No Longer a Public Service||Ralf Ballard looks at the railways after privatisation|
I am a railway engineer, formerly employed by British Rail. The accident at Potters Bar prompted me to say something about the railways since privatisation.
I started on the railway back in the good old days of BR. I was a permanent way man, which meant that I was occupied maintaining and renewing the track. After three years I went over to the S&T, which involved maintaining, renewing and fault-finding the points and signalling equipment.
When I first joined BR, even though I was only a track worker I was made to feel an integral part of something. I was issued with all my own personal gear, and without wishing to sound an anorak I still have the old BR overcoat with which I was issued complete with buttons and insignia. It's very thermal, made of wool and a good fit too. It has plenty of character, and is like an old friend.
Everybody from station staff to drivers and signalmen, engineers and carriage-cleaners more or less had a basic knowledge of everybody else's job, while of course specialising in their own. So should anything else go wrong there would be enough cohesion to keep things under control. Everyone was issued with a general BR rule-book. This made sense.
It was, in a way, one big happy family, and all employees got free travel to and from work and during leisure time.
All these things infused employees with a sense of duty and pride, and you could even travel free on the Continent. I still do because I keep my old BR contract, which they can't take away from me - not at least at the moment, although I dare say they're working on finding ways and means. The new starters who work for the private railway companies now don't even get free travel to and from work!
In addition we had the concession of only having to pay about 20% of normal London transport fares, including those on buses and underground. It was one big co-operative public transport system, which at one time was the envy of the world.
The railway system is now run by accountants, bureaucrats, lawyers, businessmen and freemasons. And this is where, as a railwayman, I've got to say something.
Sir Nigel Gresley's pacific steam locomotives were crewed by proud men. When these loco's, such as the Evening Star, were withdrawn in the late 1960s there wasn't yet a diesel engine capable of matching their performance.
Also we had the first deep-level underground electric railway in the world, which opened to the public in 1890. This forms part of the original Northern Line. The tunnel was the first one to use iron panelling, bolted together to form a tube. Tunnelling at deep level through clay, it was safe and relatively cheap and quick. It was a brilliant piece of Victorian engineering. Neither should we forget the old tram system, which some will know has been reinstalled at Croydon, just south of London, and in some places around the country, notably Manchester.
In the early-to-mid-1990s, when the railways were being privatised, the new private companies took a lot of the former BR staff, including me, who had not been in the railways very long. But they got rid of all the old school, who had had twenty or thirty years experience - replacing them with whizz-kids and spin-doctors who know nothing about the railways or indeed about the real world. These people are now paid by Railtrack to oversee the privatisation of the railways.
Accountants and bureaucrats
Railtrack now being the governing body, as said, the accountants and bureaucrats contract out to the various private companies who run the trains nationwide. God knows how many there of them, and they seem to change every five minutes. Apart from being the most expensive fakes in the western world, they are not even consistent. They also make complicated things which should be simple.
They're trying hard now to Americanise our railways with all that "have-a-nice-day" sort of waffle. You really should listen to them on the intercom on the trains, particularly the inter-city ones. Their talk just insults your intelligence and I find it very irritating. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that a lot of the money now being put into the railways is foreign, including American.
Working on the engineering site, we don't have to deal with the public, thank goodness. But it's very much the same scene. Since privatisation I've worked for three different companies, each one losing the contract in turn. All sorts of different, bizarre companies come and go, and they're all hostile to one another, hence mistakes and accidents on site.
Also all the tracks, points and signalling equipment, etc., are patrolled and inspected on a regular basis and any faults are reported to the supervisors. But, as in the case of Hatfield, the necessary work cannot be done until the money has been released by the company. It gets very complicated, so all the supervisor can do is log any faults into his computer. That way the employees' backsides are covered. It also takes a huge amount of paperwork, and we seem to spend half our days with this paperwork instead of doing the job out there on the tracks. It has just become one big arse-covering exercise!
The whole system has become unworkable. There's no more self-reliance or responsibility anymore. As long as things look good on paper, that all that matters.
And it's also become a lawyers' paradise. I know this is a terrible thing to say, but if anything the lawyers are rubbing their hands together whenever some crash like Hatfield, Potters Bar or Paddington occurs. And it's the same when a company loses or gains a contract. It's all about jobs for the boys!
Well, OK, some may say British Rail wasn't perfect, but at least it worked better than what we have today. Now there are no longer public services, only businesses.