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Separation issue not resolved

01 Jun 2001

OF ALL THE CHANGES thrust on the world's railways in the last decade of the 20th century, separating operations from infrastructure was the most fundamental. Embraced by few and denigrated by many, separation generated more controversy than any other topic. In Britain, it led to unprecedented havoc after last October's derailment at Hatfield (p413), which in different circumstances might have passed quietly into history. As it is, Hatfield is a landmark to which engineers and managers will refer for years to come.

The aftermath of the accident did more than anything else to focus attention on Britain's privatised network - and on the concept of separating track from trains. The policy of splitting what until the late 1980s was generally considered indivisible has been politically driven, to the point where its supporters are 'emotional to dogmatic', in the words of a booklet issued by Switzerland's Information Service for Public Transport (Litra). The Advantages of the Integrated Railway expresses a view which we understand to be close to that held by Swiss Federal Railways.

Hardly surprisingly, the authors have not understood all facets of the British experiment, but they have made an impressive stab at marshalling the arguments for and against separation. They claim that all successfully privatised railways are vertically integrated, and that Europe's rail network does not have to submit to legally-enforced separation for the market to open up to new operators. An integrated railway, they suggest, is better able to develop and apply new technologies because division of responsibility hampers progress. They point out that separation introduces new interfaces and 'new risks that cannot be controlled'. Finally, they opine that improvements in productivity and efficiency can only be achieved if responsibility for management of infrastructure and operations is co-ordinated. Amen to most of that.

Pre-Hatfield, we were impressed by the ability of Britain's franchisees to grow passenger traffic at 6 to 7% a year - and said so. Clearly some things were right, and the complex structure had been made to work, although day-to-day problems were hard to resolve. But no-one had foreseen just how total the collapse would be when it came. The reason lay at the very heart of the railway in the wheel-rail interface, still the subject of research by heavy haul and other railways - and we offer no apologies for hammering home the point again.

In time, we may see the technical inviolability of the wheel-rail interface universally acknowledged once again, and separated railways will be viewed as an aberration foisted on Europe by competition-obsessed politicians. But this will not happen tomorrow, and railways must learn to live with political demands - and legislation - that require a form of separation. All this is not to say that different operators cannot share tracks in competition, as running powers have existed since the early days of railways and still work successfully in North America and elsewhere.

Indeed, Litra acknowledges that competition has benefits, and notes that there are already open access operators in Switzerland. Competition is set to intensify as the country's rail reform programme progresses, with local and regional services up for concessioning - one reason why SBB is keen to gain experience of a competitive market with its joint-venture bids for the Wessex and Thames Trains franchises in Britain.

Last year 94% of SBB's passenger trains arrived within 4min of scheduled time against a target of 95%, no doubt one reason why on average each Swiss makes 41 train trips a year, more than in any other European country. SBB sold nearly 231000 all-line passes last year, another pointer to the popularity of the intensely-worked network. Under the planned reforms there is internal separation of operations and infrastructure, but responsibility for both comes under a single management. This is one of eight core principles listed in Litra's 'Charter for Successful Railways', which would repay study by those who shape and direct transport policies.