21C Governance: Three Reasons British Railways Don’t Work (and How To Fix Them)

How on earth could one of the world’s most advanced cities manage to disrupt its essential transport infrastructure, the lives of so many, and its economic activity so foolishly, and with such little interest from those in power?

That was my conclusion in 2003. Today, exactly those words apply to another rail foul up with Southern Rail and to similar circumstances for many other British commuters and cities.

Martin Rowson, Honest Underground announcer.

Martin Rowson, Honest Underground announcer.

The scale of human misery, stress, discomfort and the impact on working lives cannot be measured in words. And that’s from someone who’s spent years writing reports for governments and finding answers. 

You would think I could come up with a way to qualify this. Let’s just call it plain idiocy, because that is what it is.

Despite the pressure from millions of angry commuters, transport select committees, marches on the Department of Transport, petitions and tweeters desperate for a line of communication with the operator… Nothing. There is no effective channel for change.

This tweet – by Channel 4 news presenter Cathy Newman – gets to the nub of the question:

Hmm. Operators? Regulators? Politicians? Civil Servants? Who the hell is to blame?  I’m an engineer at heart, turned consultant, turned policy adviser.

So one day when the engine fell off a tube train and left the Central Line out of service and ½ million passengers a day to find ‘alternative routes’, I began investigating. I was keen to unpick the thread which worked out where responsibility lay for me being without my service for 3 months. 

Do bear with me. This was over a decade ago. But this experience saw a similar scale of human and economic disruption to a British city alongside scant interest from government to the effects of today’s rail chaos.

The story – in some ways a piece of detection – shows why governance lies at the heart of idiocy off the rails.

Plus, the incident looms large in my life – it was the launchpad for me writing a book, based on 100s of interviews with ministers, peers, judges, civil servants, councillors, doctors, teachers, gardeners, builders and many more for a system of government that delivers.

But first, let me tell you about the day my tolerance for a crap commute snapped.


It was snowing in London. It had been a long day. Usually I would have walked into Bank station and been home thirty-five minutes later.

My feet dragged. Some weeks before, a train had derailed in a tunnel after its engine fell off (no one knew why), injuring thirty-two passengers, closing the Central Line. My route that night was overground to Chingford where I came out of the station at 11 pm.

With no buses operating or taxis for hire, I walked for an hour through the snow in Epping Forest. Home once more, cold, wet, tired, pissed off, and so looking forward to battling transport once again early the following morning. Joy.

Three months after closing, the line fully reopened.

Being a problem-solver by occupation and inclination, my frustrated mind turned to this: Surely keeping the engine attached to the train is a key task for rail operators.

Who was responsible, first for trains with detachable engines, and second for sorting them out when they went wrong? And where was the sense of urgency? To whom did this matter?

The answers were fuzzy. Back then responsibility for London Underground lay with the Department for Transport, which is run by civil servants who value the ‘clever generalist’ and the ability to ‘master a brief’. 

Because they are clever in an academic sense, these generalists believe they are capable of almost any of the hundreds of diverse tasks found in every government. But no one there had any operational experience of commuter railways, or of running a large organisation like London Underground, or of attaching engines to trains.

Vitally, neither had the ministers, who were unable to interrogate the rail management and challenge its decisions.

So here we go. Issue number 1: There were few/no specialists in government who understood the, ahem, nuts and bolts of running a rail service.

Next, in terms of public pressure the chain of accountability was as strong as a cardboard bicycle lock. It wound its way from us, the users and voters, through to the national government and the election of a political party every four or five years, through its many priorities, on into a minister of the day with his or her agenda, onward to the civil servants and thence to London Underground.

In other words, the next time the government might feel some heat over this issue was two years hence at the general election, by which time it would have been put to bed and politically forgotten. In effect, at that time, there was almost zero accountability of London Underground to the public.

Onwards. Issue number 2: There were no formal means to address policy failure. This, coupled with the regular changing of the ministerial guard, meant there was no one with whom the buck stopped. Starting to see any similarities here?

Many modern countries have real local government, where non-functioning train lines become top priority very quickly. London had finally got this with the election of its first executive mayor in 2000, and the establishment of its operational arm Transport for London. 

Good local democracy increases transparency and can galvanise that accountability chain.

But a spanner had been inserted in the works. The government of Tony Blair – another of the ‘absolute monarch’ tendency – prevented the transfer of control of London Underground to the GLA until 2003, after itself signing controversial, flawed and ultimately failed private finance initiatives for track maintenance. 

Why they stopped the transfer was as much to do with political and personal jealousy as contracts – the new mayor had stood for office as an independent against the wishes of his party’s hierarchy. Even worse, he was popular and competent.

So, bam. Issue number 3: A step to introduce democratic accountability for London and its public infrastructure had been derailed.

Once Ken Livingstone got hold of the Underground it started to be managed more for its passengers than for the rail union’s officials, management, and drivers.

As an executive mayor, with both the power and the responsibility to appoint his civil servants, he replaced 27 of the top management at TfL and brought in hardened and experienced metro managers from New York.

The service improved as the executive mayor delivered what he had been elected to do. If the government system around it is further developed (developments identified in my book) then it will get better again. Otherwise, it won’t.

Totting this all up, the underlying reasons that led to the engine dropping off were (intake of breath!): an unaccountable London Underground; civil servants without the experience or idea of how to run a large metro service, nor interest, nor organisational motivation; no feedback or monitoring of results by Parliament; prime ministers with too much power, and with psychological flaws; and no executive mayor in control.


  • Two political parties, three prime ministers, five governments and a herd of transport ministers had between them created, or allowed the conditions for, something off the dumb scale. And none of them meant to.
  • There was no single cause, no headline howler. It was the system – the system of government to, in this case, run the trains – that was at fault.
  • And, the solution was not to be found anywhere near privatisation: but in governance.

So there’s my story of three months spent tramping through Epping Forest at uncommon hours of the day.  But I hope you get my drift.  While superficially the cause was a broken engine, the unseen hand of governance was really the villain and is still the villain today.

What do I mean with by this?  Well, it’s the bigger picture. You can’t replace a screw or tighten a bolt when the system is an old banger.

And our system of government is an old banger. Contrary to what many in power would have us believe – that the system we have is essentially the only one possible – there are all manner of ways to run governments and public services.

The UK happens to have one way. Don’t say it can’t be changed – it can; but not by using the thought processes usually employed by those within these government systems. A different perspective and discipline is needed across the board.

Back to today’s railway system, how would a sensible government sort out this idiocy?

It does not work, for three main reasons:

  1. Design: The UK government still believes that because it’s private it will work. We don’t experience astonishing quality in cars because they are produced by the private sector, but because they are the product of the system of market capitalism: highly competitive and reasonably accurately regulated. Contrast this with ‘privatised’ railways – highly uncompetitive and misregulated. Competing for a monopoly of a rail franchise once every 10 years is not competition. Imagine a single company being awarded a franchise to build all cars in one region for 10 years. If it is assumed that a problem can be solved by the application of say, economic theory or a legal construct alone, then the result will miss key parts of the whole system. Privatising the railways was dreamt up by an economist – a former colleague of mine – and it suffered from single discipline syndrome.
  2. Experience. It requires experienced contract managers to run the operating companies tightly, and not the civil servants of the Department for Transport (or DaFT as Private Eye terms it) hiding behind contracts sold to them by expensive city lawyers as running themselves. No contract does. Successful contract management is found in the sort of process plant contractors I used to work for, where the company has developed and refined this specialism over decades, along with its staff. No ‘generalist’ would be let anywhere near managing the construction of an oil rig.
  3. Transparency. The whole system conspires in hiding as much as possible, thus to prevent any accountability to customers and taxpayers.  Passengers are plied with platitudinous pretexts from the immortal ‘signal failure’ to the absurdly disingenuous ‘half term’. We all know when half terms are coming. If only, as in Martin Rowson’s cartoon, we could insist on a real answer for late running trains.

Despite this, it looks as though the government is to reach into its ideology handbag yet again and pluck out the magic privatisation potion as the solution by transferring Network Rail’s track responsibilities to the train operators, like Virgin and Arriva.

This comes smothered in irony as British Rail in the 90s had restructured into sectors of combined track and train operations in separate regions/routes. Privatisation split them. The failed private Railtrack became the public Network Rail.

Now Network Rail is being split and a large chunk going to the Train Operating Companies – combining track and trains, with a structure very similar to British Rail in the 90s – but now private. Dizzy? Zigzag?

May I humbly suggest an alternative way forward?

We should start by engaging all those specialists and everyday users and staff in bringing to the table relevant facts and information, independently verified, with spun statistics banned.

With these ‘stakeholders’ Parliament would examine successful railway systems in other countries, carefully understanding the whole system and its governance. It would then develop options for a new one, again on which it would engage and deliberate.

A preference would form. Laws would be passed and then the difficult stage commence: doing it. With all round will this could be done in 1-2 years. Then decent railways would return.

This is not a matter that should be left to the zigzaging of two party adversarial politics working in private with their own psychologically flawed ideological ‘beliefs’, inevitably leading to another meaningless swerve in policy just another new minister or government away.

Too simple? Party politics would show no self-control? Getting our railways right is an example of where a ‘Politics Aside’ approach would not just work, but would arrive on time.

Let’s kick out the ideology handbag, along with the ‘half terms’, and create a world-class railway that actually works.   

Ed Straw

, ,

  • On the fence!

    Two or three years ago a friend of mine who is a bit of an IT whizz was seconded to the Fire and Rescue Service to do a bit troubleshooting. They were still running on IE6!!!!

    Notwithstanding the number of years out of date, this was a program(me!) given regular accolades as one of the most insecure pieces of software ever developed, and that’s what one of the most vital components of our society was stumbling along on.

    Before going in to any detail, the public sector needs to get back to remembering it’s purpose, i.e. to serve the public. That’s what is missing at all levels*, from the council worker on minimum wage right up to the highest paid politicians and civil servants.

    Until that mindset changes, nothing else will.

    *Yes, there are a few exceptions, but very, very, few and far between!

  • Korhomme

    If you have a state run car industry, you get a Trabant. A state run railway gives you BR sandwiches.

    Competition is fine for consumer goods; competition and privatisation are hallmarks of ‘neoliberal’ politics as developed from Hayek’s ideas.

    It should be entirely clear today that unrestrained capitalism doesn’t work in ‘public utilities’, whether these are railways, water supply or health services. Capitalism exists to make profits; capitalism isn’t about altruism or service.

    You want decent cars? Look to Germany or Japan.

    You want decent railways? Look to Switzerland, a mixture of public and private providers.

    And until our politicians realise the parts of neoliberalism that have failed, until this culture changes, it’s not likely that things will improve.

  • aquifer

    The UK electoral system flatters two modes of economic organisation, capitalist competition and organised labour. But capitalists abhor competing to serve customers and the unions organise to help themselves. Every election we vote for rail failure.

  • Korhomme

    It used to. New Labour and the Tories were very similar in their economic policies. Mrs T largely broke the coercive powers of the unions; capitalists work best in markets for stuff, not public services.

  • Gopher

    The sixth century history student in me perceives things slightly different. The railways and transport are a mess because of bad historical strategic choices. Nationalisation was a terrible finance model post war enabling Beeching to compound bad strategic thinking subsequently nationally. It is erroneous to believe technicians are any more gifted thinkers, the history of design is littered with poor concepts brought to fruition and financial catastrophe by technicians, not that generalists are can be much better. Take the Brabazon committee from that post war era as a classic example of how experts screw things up in the field of transportation, this is a classic case.

    The first and foremost problem with the railways and transport in general is the lack of redundancy in critical areas which led to poor choices like the attempt of a high speed network with APT. There is no redundancy in the gauge, there is no redundancy in the the physical lines and there is no area you can put redundancy in without huge cost south of Watford. Good designs and systems always have redundancy.

    The new HS network I imagine is an attempt to bring that redundancy though 40 years too late whilst cross-rail is over a century late. That is all the cookies spent.

    No finance model or manager now can cope with the hand the mainline railways are dealt with in the 21st century, nationalisation with zero redundancy and militant trade unions is an act of lunacy . No private finance policy can cover the operations cost in the South-East. So its keep muddling on.

    The solution as ever is simple maths move volume cheaply quickly. Rail above or below ground in the UK is the most inefficient method to achieve that, It is suffered because there is nothing else, that’s why houses beside cross-rail are jumping in value. Hardly mass transit when the masses are effectively priced out. Was that factored into Cross-rail or was that another conscious decision like the absurd Bristol Brabazon?

  • mickfealty

    I think you’ve missed this crucial bit at the end:

    We should start by engaging all those specialists and everyday users and staff in bringing to the table relevant facts and information, independently verified, with spun statistics banned.

    With these ‘stakeholders’ Parliament would examine successful railway systems in other countries, carefully understanding the whole system and its governance. It would then develop options for a new one, again on which it would engage and deliberate.

    A preference would form. Laws would be passed and then the difficult stage commence: doing it. With all round will this could be done in 1-2 years. Then decent railways would return.

  • Gopher

    I noticed it, just thought it was pretty fluffy. No two designers can agree never mind all aspects of public opinion from greens to the far right. Nope the best method is give a broad mission statement specification and invite tenders.

    As for the South East of England it has unique problems that Dubai, Bangkok and Hong Kong can circumvent with raised lines. I have used all three systems frequently and they are superb. Elsewhere in Europe before you organise the junket, the problem is obvious, London has 2.5 times the population of the next biggest western European City Berlin and thats before you consider the commuter belt!

    Put the tender out, decide which is best and then bulldoze the opposition.

  • mickfealty

    You’re making the most common mistake in the policy area. You’re going all instrumental before you’ve defined your objects. Stuff needs to change, so the most relevant question is how do we change. Talk to the people who might have a clue or two: ie, the users and the wider citizenry?

  • Gopher

    Again I have to be negative, the public don’t know what the solution is. Brunel’s brief was to connect London to Bristol it did not include the route the gauge nor the rolling stock. Pan Am asked for a bigger plane than the 707 they did not design it for Boeing.

    As I have explained the question is simply move a huge mass of people which has no comparison in western Europe around the most expensive land area in the world that has unfeasibly narrow streets without disturbing numerous Cathedrals, Palaces, Castles, Museums and various listed buildings.

    If there is a solution it is radical and beyond the comprehension of the general user just like the turbine, elliptical wing and jet engine were or it will involve the sacrifice of principles which are no less uncomprehensible to the public.

    Sacrifices can be political like nationalising land another is enviromental like raised railways on pylons following river courses. The best way to find the solution if we are serious (which we are not we simply dont have the cash) is set the budget for the solution and put it out to tender, not ask every yahoo what he thinks because he stands on the tube every day.

  • Archiblog


  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Could we not just bring in a German or Swiss train mogul with a pillow case of brass door knobs and a few heavies?
    Listen to him/her and let the work get done.