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Rail awards? For what?

Comment

On the face of it the Rail Awards tonight might seem a bit of a cheek. After all, they are about recognition of the achievements of an industry that has consistently under performed in both the hands of the public sector and under the control of private companies.

Rather than celebrating tonight at the Hilton in Park Lane, it could be argued that the industry would do better keeping its head down and getting on with some of the work that might actually give it something to be proud of.

The host for the evening, BBC Radio 4 Today Programme anchor John Humphrys, may not miss the opportunity to remind the industry of a few facts.

Facts such as the number of delayed and cancelled trains still wreaking havoc with timetables. The overcrowding and poor standard of service suffered by commuters each morning as they await longpromised improvements. The bureaucracy that still surrounds ticket purchasing or the simple lack of a decent, good value cup of coffee during your journey.

He may even remind us of more serious issues such as the chaotic process by which future investment in the railways is being decided between the government, Regulator, Strategic Rail Authority, Railtrack and the train operating companies or of the millions of pounds being wasted in the process. And then there is the ever increasing number of vehicles and members of the public that are finding their way onto the railway lines - Selby's 'one-in-a-million' appears in reality be more like a once a month incident.

So what is there to celebrate?

Public confidence in the industry is probably still at an all time low and we are moving into autumn with its falling leaves, cold snaps and potential for sudden floods. Have we really made any progress since last year worth celebrating?

For me the answer is yes. For while the rail industry could of course have done better in terms of actual delivery, the framework in which everyone at tonight's event is forced to work means rapid progress is very, very difficult. To have come through 2001 - through Hatfield with its broken and cracked rail legacy and the subsequent network meltdown; through Lord Cullen's Paddington crash inquiry report; through the collapse of Railtrack as an investment force; and through the government's dithering and indecision over how to secure vital investment in the nation's inter city routes - and still have an industry, is in many ways a remarkable achievement.

It is remarkable because of the amount of responsibility being forced upon the engineers and companies involved in maintaining the track and assets, in running the trains and in ensuring that the public can travel in safety. Remarkable because of the way the government continues to use the industry as a cover for its own policy deficiencies. And remarkable when you consider the often illinformed and simplistic commentary offered by much of the national media.

When you look at the rewards now on offer in these 'post-fatcat' days, one evening celebration surely cannot be considered as excessive.

It is engineers that are eventually going to turn the railways around in the UK. While continuing to knock their failings, it is time we started supporting their achievements - underlining to those pulling the strings just what can be achieved. Tonight's Rail Awards are a start.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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