Public Values

What could go wrong? Privatized British Rail demonstrates

When every service or component is owned by a different operator, nothing is simple.

Mike Haynes experienced the chaos of privatized British rail first handby Mike Haynes, Shropshire Star

Shropshire academic Mike Haynes was one of the rail passengers who were stuck on a county train for several hours on Saturday night after a mechanical problem. Here he describes his experience.

May 11, 2009 — Sitting on a train, stuck between Wellington and Shrewsbury, for over three hours gives you a lot of time to think.

And when the only view that is of the concrete of road bridge Number 423a, you can't help thinking about the sheer lunacy of Britain's privatised railways.

With the crisis in the banking system, the job market collapsing and house prices falling, you might think that being trapped in the Shropshire countryside for hours on a Saturday evening is a small issue.

But as connections were missed, journeys aborted and celebrations cancelled, it could stand for a picture of the craziness of Britain's deregulated system - where anything goes as long as the money keeps rolling in at the top.

If this sounds unfair let me take you on a journey into Britain's railway madness.

Problems will always occur. Trains break down. This is what happened to the 15.30 Aberystwyth to Birmingham service soon after it left Shrewsbury at 17.31 on Saturday evening.

A few miles down the line the brakes jammed on and everything stopped. Passengers on that train were stranded for hours and with them passengers on my train, just behind it.

The test of any system is not what happens when it works - that's the easy bit. The real test is what happens when it fails. The answer on the railways is chaos as hundreds of us learned to our cost as we watched the sun go down over Shropshire.

The failed train was an Arriva one. Now before we run ahead of ourselves I should explain that the track it was on is controlled by Network Rail.

The unit itself was also not owned by Arriva but leased from one of the three rolling stock companies owned respectively by Abbey National, HSBC and, wait for it, the Royal Bank of Scotland!

These companies earn over a billion pounds a year from leasing out rolling stock to the train operator companies.

If this sounds complicated you have to try to keep up because it gets worse.

The Arriva train driver called Arriva control to tell them the problem.

Arriva is now the company delaying lots of other trains so it will have to pay compensation to these companies.

But it will also have to pay to get its train moving if the driver can't fix it. So their first response is to tell the driver of that train to see what he can do. But the brakes remain locked on.

So what about a second solution? Maybe our London Midland train can push the Arriva one. But there are two difficulties. The first is technical - will the couplings fit? The second is financial - will Arriva be prepared to pay for the push?

It takes until about 7 o'clock to get agreement that they will and our train can push theirs. We're over an hour in now, but the ordeal is only beginning.

As soon as the trains link the Arriva fault is transferred to ours and its brakes jam. Worse, they now cannot get the trains uncoupled. It takes almost another two hours of attempts which include stopping the trains on the other line so that our drivers can safely crawl underneath before we are freed.

Unfortunately the Arriva train is still stuck fast and its passengers are left stranded as we begin to go backwards to Shrewsbury.

Our guard throughout is calm and helpful and as we crawl to Shrewsbury he collects our details and tells us that station staff will be waiting in the forecourt with taxis.

Experience suggests it may not be this easy and it is not. At 21.00 - three and a quarter hours after leaving Shrewsbury - we arrive back and there are no station staff and no taxis waiting.

Fortunately there is a duty manager who is surprised to see us because Shrewsbury is an Arriva station and although he had ordered a bus for the Arriva passengers, if they ever got back, he knew nothing about us because we were London Midland passengers and their control had not told his control.

Neil, the Arriva employer, is a model of calm. He rings London Midland who seem confused but twenty minutes later they are back on the phone and give him permission to get us taxis to take us either home or to Wolverhampton and Birmingham. By now it's 21.30.

You would think, said another passenger to my wife, that after being stuck for over three hours they would a least give us some water. But she too wasn't thinking straight.

You see in this lunatic world Neil would have had to have known we were coming and then had a means of getting water. I know what you are thinking: There is a refreshment room on Shrewsbury station. But don't be silly. First, it was closed and second, even if Neil had the keys, it's owned by the Lemon Tree.

But don't be fooled by this either. The Lemon Tree is just one of over 400 outlets owned by SSP UK Rail Ltd, which include the Upper Crust, M & S Simply Food rail outlets and Victoria Wine and Threshers outlets. So taking water from them would have been a simple act of theft.

To understand the craziness of this chaotic system we at least need joined up thinking.

So, parched and frustrated we were eventually on our way, squashed into a taxi. But not just any taxi. We had to wait for one from the right contracted firm.

We finally arrive home at Shifnal at 22.00, four and quarter hours after we first left Shrewsbury.

But if you think this was bad spare a thought for the Arriva passengers and Neil having to deal with them. And spare a thought too for the passengers with onward connections.

That's right. We don't know what happened to the London bound group. Hopefully they got the last train to London from Birmingham. But if they did and wanted to go further their problems were not at an end.

This is Britain's privatised railways and they were London Midland passengers who had a problem caused by Arriva.

Once they arrived at Euston in the middle of the night they were out of both Arriva and London Midland territory and the other companies could argue that they had no responsibility for them.

Privatisation was sold to us as a solution to the problems of the railways. But this chaos is all too typical of what it really means.

Rail bosses are some of the highest paid in the country. But the subsidy to Britain's private railway companies is now three to four times higher than that to British Rail.

Worse, Britain's rail fares are some of the highest in Europe, our trains are more overcrowded and their punctuality is below the European average and no better than the old BR achieved.

And when it all goes wrong - well, it gives you something to think about when you get stuck on a failed train for hours.

Mike Haynes is a Reader in Global Business at the University of Wolverhampton Business School.

Links and sources
  What's wrong with our railways..., by Mike Haynes, Shropshire Star, May 11 2009

Posted: May 14, 2009

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