Death on the rails

Stephen Byers has admitted he lied about his plans to buy Railtrack at a knock down price. It is time to come clean about the other aspect of this policy: that it killed people, and that he knew it would.

First written in 2001, this brief history of how nationalisation almost killed Britain's railways, privatisation revived them, and a cynical government conspired to destroy this success is still very relevant today.

Railtrack invested far more in expanding the railways than in the nationalised period. Recall that there was 50 years of not just underinvestment, but divestment. British Rail closed down more than half the network that the private sector had built and run. Railtrack and the private train operators reversed a long term decline in rail usage, in its last year around 30% up on British Rail days.

Railtrack ran into trouble because the government changed the rules. First the government whipped up an astonishing scare story about the "dangers" of the safest way to travel on land. 1998, under Railtrack, was one of only a handful of years in the 20th Century in which no-one died on the railways. In no year since privatisation has the number of deaths on the railways exceeded the total for a few days of road deaths.

Second, the government imposed ludicrous speed restrictions which had the effect of driving people off the railways. These people travelled by the far more dangerous route of road travel. It is almost certainly the case that this policy killed people. More people almost certainly died on the roads than otherwise would have done specifically because of these speed restrictions.

Worse, when Stephen Byers cynically imposed these speed restrictions, he almost certainly knew that a direct consequence would be increased deaths. Either that or he was outrageously incompetent. It was, after all, his job to know that road travel is more dangerous than rail.

Then, having cut Railtrack's income by driving people off the railways, they defaulted on promised payments. That is why Railtrack ran into financial trouble, so the government could fraudulently buy it at a knock down price.

Copyright (c) Quentin Langley 28 October 2001

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