A whistle stop tour of polemic

On the Wrong Line
June 23, 2006

Christian Wolmar's work on railways is well known: he is a prolific journalist and author. He is also something of a British Michael Moore, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. On the strength side, it means a lot of research: he is no ignoramus. He also writes well, and he conveys specialised and sometimes technical information to the general reader very effectively. But, like Moore, he also has the messianic habit of seeing only one side to an argument, and, like Moore, he will not let inconvenient facts get in the way of his conclusions.

Wolmar's views are summed up in the book's title. This is the story of how a great organisation was ruined by ideological politicians and incompetent managers. Strangely, half of the book is a reprint of his earlier book Broken Rails , unrevised and unaltered. Those who bought that volume have the right to feel annoyed at this cheap tactic.

The cornerstone of Wolmar's case is safety, and in particular the Hatfield crash, in which four people died. Wolmar does not pull his punches: Hatfield was "clearly the result of callous political decisions". This will not do. Independent academic research has shown that the number of accidents and the number killed under the fragmented privatised system was lower than under British Rail and was improving at a faster rate. Andrew Evans, professor of transport risk management at Imperial College London, has shown that since the separation of track and trains, 15 fewer people a year have died than we would expect. Wolmar notes Evans's work but dismisses it as "hypothetical". It is not: it is something that politicians, managers and workers can be proud of.

Wolmar then complains (correctly) that we have become irrationally obsessed with rail safety, and that ridiculous sums of money are being spent to avoid minor risks. He puts this down to hyped-up media coverage of accidents, which has scared politicians. But for Wolmar to cry wolf so frequently - "there really is blood on the hands of those who created the privatisation fiasco" - and then to complain that people are scared, and spend too much money on anti-wolf defences, is deeply hypocritical.

To Wolmar, the private sector can do no right in railways. He criticises it for building duplicate lines in the 19th century - and then criticises the Beeching plan for cutting out duplication. He criticises 19th-century railway engineers for not building fast enough lines, apparently unaware that British railways were the fastest in the world. Not that it is clear why he likes state ownership: he lists a litany of British Rail's "crass errors", how it wasted £10 billion in a mistaken modernisation plan, how it took 30 years for the nationalised railway to "at last grasp the nettle of efficiency". He does not rate recent transport politicians either - from John Prescott to Stephen Byers to Alistair Darling, none gets good coverage.

Why, then, if BR was regularly so incompetent and recent politicians so bad, should we think that they could run our railways effectively?

Under private ownership, British railways run far more trains and carry far more people than at any time since Beeching, and they do so far more safely than at any time since George Stephenson. Yes, there were and are mistakes, some by the government, some by managers, some by workers. That is true for any industry. Privatisation, it appears, is the worst solution - except for all the others that have been tried.

Timothy Leunig is lecturer in economic history, London School of Economics.

On the Wrong Line: How Ideology and Incompetence Wrecked Britain's Railways

Author - Christian Wolmar
Publisher - Aurum
Pages - 373
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 1 85410 998 7

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