Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

All the wrong signals to get rail moving

Comment Antony Oliver

Transport secretary Stephen Byers' surprise decision to back son of Railtrack - and Railtrack shareholders - to the tune of £300M highlights how much money is being spent clearing up the mess after his decision to put the privatised rail operator into administration.

It beggars belief just how far and how quickly he has been allowed to shunt the future development of railways into the sidings. But we must bear in mind that the previous transport boss John Prescott had already done a fair job to perpetuate the downward rail spiral started by the Conservative government at privatisation.

Of course, many of the experienced engineers highlighted in NCE 's report this week on unemployment among the older members of the workforce were casualties of this privatisation. The search for efficiency in the name of profits for shareholders had a very high price for engineering in the rail industry.

And at £1M a day to keep Railtrack going in administration, it is perhaps sensible for Byers to seek a way to avoid protracted legal wrangles with shareholders. As such it might, after all, be sensible to offer them some limited compensation for their losses. The longer the track operator stays under the control of the accountants, the longer development and improvement of the rail network will remain in limbo.

Yet it is frustrating to see just how much time, effort and money is being spent thrashing out the details of this rescue package when millions of passengers continue to suffer the misery of delayed, over-priced and uncomfortable journeys to work each day.

But once the decision was made to put Railtrack into administration, it was inevitable that efforts to develop already delayed plans to finance the urgently needed upgrade of the rail network would be put on hold. The imperative must now be to find financing arrangements for the rail network to allow the mess to be unravelled.

We have heard much of late about how Byers has destroyed vital relationships with the City, but it is wrong to believe that only clever, city friendly financing arrangements will now guarantee the railway's future. If financiers saw the potential to earn a buck yesterday, they will see one tomorrow. Not even Byer's could alter that.

However, what remains outstanding is the clear leadership from government required to kick-start the engineering solutions that will transform the rail network.

A positive, forward looking lead giving real support for plans now being hatched by the Strategic Rail Authority would help demonstrate that the railway is saveable and that government wants to be part of the solution.

Rather than giving so much air time to the sharp suited city lenders, the government would do well to move on, with or without Byers, to focus on how to best spend cash on the clever engineering needed to improve the railway.

If this is combined with measures to reveal the true costs of alternatives to rail transport, the private sector will soon be queuing to jump on board for a slice of the rewards.

Antony Oliver is the editor of NCE

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.