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Welsby asks crunch questions

01 Feb 1998

'AN OBJECTIVE assessment of the performance of the privatised railway today shows that, in general, it is hardly better than it was in the last years of public ownership. That is a great disappointment.' Giving the Sir Robert Reid lecture to the Chartered Institute of Transport in London on January 13, Chairman of the British Railways Board John Welsby was offering a thoughtful and professional assessment of privatisation in Britain to date, and some of what he had to say was not encouraging.

Support for his pessimistic view came just two days later when Franchising Director John O'Brien commented that 'performance levels generally continue to concern and disappoint me'. He was referring to the most recent figures for punctuality and cancelled trains, which at the outset were specified to give the franchised train operating companies a good chance of meeting the targets.

Welsby noted that 'the situation is particularly ominous because very significant additional public funds have now been injected into the industry.' He warned that customers were perfectly aware that more money was available and that the excuse of old equipment inherited from BR suddenly becoming unserviceable would not wash for much longer. If age and money were not the problems, then 'they must be more to do with management ... there is no more urgent task facing the industry than rectification of these serious failings.'

Welsby was also disturbed that the Railway Inspectorate had felt it necessary to point to potential inadequacies in safety attitudes and practices in its latest annual report. Despite good intentions at top level and good policies, 'if they are not followed through to ensure reliable, consistent and pragmatic safety practice on the ground ... then all the aspirations and commitment in the boardrooms are worth no more than hot air. That was the lesson of Clapham.'

For all that, Welsby did not believe that privatisation was a bad thing. Apart from anything else, he felt that it 'is actually good because it causes government to think what it actually wants - don't underestimate the benefit of that.' Suggesting that 'the prospects of productive railway investment are greater and more promising than any time in my working lifetime' and pointing out that privatisation had swept aside 'the debilitating uncertainty of the public expenditure round', he also said that the ownership change had allowed long-overdue changes in industrial relations practices to be brought about, in particular driver restructuring. In the future lay the prospect of 'significantly expanding the market for rail services for the first time in many decades'.

It was this which brought Welsby to ask the first of several questions addressing the future of the railway. Centreing on the relationship with government which so often determines the success or failure of railway management, these included fundamental issues such as 'the criteria that will guide the design and reletting of franchises in the early years of the new millenium'.

The government is working on plans to set up a Strategic Rail Authority combining the functions of the Department of Transport and the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, and here Welsby has the opportunity to influence the course of events. The BR Board is advising the Secretary of State for Transport on the government's aspirations for 'a strategic vision for railways', and this opens the way to put right one of the major faults of the privatisation structure set up by the previous government, which was the complete lack of strategic direction. Welsby put the issue to the CIT like this: 'If you ask "what is the railway going to look like in 2010?", whose job is it to answer that question?' Although he did not say so, it could well be his.

The stage is being reset for another phase of railway-government relationships in Britain, and Welsby described it as 'a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'. Failure to grasp it would be irresponsible. o