McNulty: Problems of rail fragmentation demand more fragmentation

ASLEF's James McGowan reports on the failings of the McNulty report on the high cost of British rail costs.

Keith Norman is General Secretary of the train drivers’ union, ASLEF

The Rail Review, whose findings were published today by former Civil Aviation Authority chief Sir Roy McNulty, was established in 2009 to examine why Britain’s railway costs so much more than others in Europe.

This seems a fair and sensible idea but what we’ve ended up with is yet another proposal to rearrange the furniture of the house while ignoring the fundamental problems with the foundations.

As the representative of the UK’s train drivers, ASLEF agrees with McNulty’s analysis that the fragmentation of train operations and rail infrastructure alongside multiple interfaces throughout the supply chain and the separate ownership of rolling stock are just some of the reasons why the UK’s railways have tripled in cost since privatisation in 1995.

The railways cost £11 billion a year to run, with more than half of this made up by taxpayer subsidy and most of the remainder coming from passengers. McNulty completely fails to recognise the easiest way to reduce costs and increase efficiency would be to reintegrate the railways under public ownership.

Without acknowledging the need for structural change it’s hard to see much positive impact coming from Sir Roy’s recommendations. I fear the proposed Rail Delivery Group will be a high level talking shop with little incentive to intervene in the key strategic challenges the industry faces. Equally the idea that fares could be set more ‘commercially’ is bound to send a chill through passengers facing near double digit fare increases in the years from 2012.

Despite Sir Roy’s assessment that fragmentation is the reason for high industry costs, he calls for more of it by suggesting private companies be given control of infrastructure as well as operations (vertical integration) which will entrench the role of those operators in the industry. ASLEF would be profoundly concerned about any steps to run infrastructure for a profit and risk a repeat of the health and safety disasters of the Railtrack era.

We are also concerned at proposals to diminish rural services which could include replacing trains with trams or light rail. How much more can local transport be downgraded? We should be enhancing local rail services to alleviate pressure on our roads and make carbon savings. Instead these recommendations see local lines as the poor relations, bringing them a step further towards closure.

The old canards of high wages and ‘Spanish practices’ have already been mooted in certain quarters as reasons for high industry costs. But ASLEF has been working on the UK model as imposed on us by John Major’s Conservative government which insisted that the way forward was the free market and unbridled competition. We have negotiated with the private companies and come to agreements. That’s how free markets work.

We regret that McNulty hasn’t been more bold with his recommendations and at least considered some incremental changes to industry structure such as giving a commitment to retain a national infrastructure provider and to extend the not-for-dividend model into operations. Also he barely refers to the huge profits made by rolling stock companies.

At a time of major public austerity this was a real chance to reduce the burden on tax and fare payers. Sadly it looks like the private companies will once again be the biggest winners.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.