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After five years and six months privatisation brought a fully functioning railway to its knees – and management failed as much as the rails
When the railway goes mad, really mad, we all need a point of reference to cling to, a reminder that it doesn't have to be like this, that it is possible to run a railway.
So, to at least start this month's column in the real world, here is Gerard Fiennes, General Manager Eastern Region, Manager, note, not Director, driving through the night in March 1967. The 22.30 sleeper off Kings Cross has derailed (been derailed maliciously it later turns out) at Connington, south of Peterborough , with five fatalities.
Telephoned at home in East Anglia Fiennes is making his way to the accident site, as he says ‘with all deliberate speed, because others will have got on with the work of rescue, reforming the service and of clearing the line. These others, train crews, first aid squads, district inspectors, controllers, divisional managers, do not take kindly to General Managers who come out to soon asking “Have you thought of doing so and so?” or urging “do it this way”'.
‘I stopped at Alconbury hill and climbed round a small knoll to locate the arc lights on the jibs of the breakdown cranes. Ten minutes later I drove up to Connington South.
‘It was a proper mess. The sleeper had broken in half, The front half was out of sight to the northward and the rear four coaches had dug into the track, destroying it completely and in the process littering the scene with torn off bogies, brake blocks, brake rods, fan belts , bits of dynamo and glass. One bogie lay right-side up athwart the track 50 yards ahead of the wreck.
‘The New England Crane was re-railing the two derailed coaches in the front half. The Kings Cross crane had started on the rear. Richard Hardy (Divisional Manager) Edwin Howell (Movements Manager) and Colin Morris (Motive Power Superintendent) had all the processes proceeding'.
Big snip, as they say on the internet.
‘The dawn came across the fen, slow misty and infinitely chill. We went into the Tool Van for mugs of Tea and doorstep sandwiches, We came out warmer but still unenlightened (about the cause of the accident). By now the work of clearance was almost done. The torn off bogies were neatly ranked by the up line, the coach bodies beyond the signalbox, the mangled rails and sleepers were pushed aside and a calf dozer was burrowing out the old ballast to prepare for new track. At that moment Richard was handed a telegram. A very slow smile spread across his face. Coming from the Research Department at Derby it read: “Touch nothing till I come”.
‘To be fair they had a problem, the derailment of freight vehicles on plain track were continuing and spreading to unexpected modern types. They needed to take a hard look at a derailed express. Their report on the track and the train was a most powerful reinforcement of our own conclusions that whatever happened at Connington should not stop us running expresses at 100mile/h and sleeping quietly in our beds'.
Fiennes left the site at 09.30 to ask after the casualties at Peterborough hospital and then on to work in York .
There is our lodestone. The derailment occurred around midnight and nine hours later the track-bed was being prepared for relaying.
In terms of the damage to infrastructure and vehicles, and the number of fatalities, Connington and the Hatfield derailment 33 years later were similar. Yet, as this was being written three weeks after the accident, the East Coast Main Line was still closed at Hatfield and Railtrack was expecting the line to open on 9 November.
So why did it take 10 hours to clear the accident site in 1967 and 17 days to remove the final vehicle in 2000? Well, I'll come to that shortly, but let's look at the clear up time for other accidents first.
Take Harrow & Wealdstone in 1952, where two trains collided in fog and a third express ploughed into the wreckage leaving 112 dead. The next morning the slow lines were open for the rush hour.
When I mentioned this to a younger journalist, he was shocked at the thought of people travelling past the wreckage, adding ‘They must have been less squeamish then'. This highlighted the double standards that dog the railway today.
Railtrack similarly started justifying the delay at Hatfield on the grounds that by rushing in the Company would be seen as uncaring and trying to protect commercial interests or even disturbing a temporary shrine. Really? When there is a nasty motorway accident tailbacks often form on the unaffected carriage way as motorists slow for a good look.
For a more recent accident consider Clapham in 1988, another three train accident plus two trains stopped short. The accident happened on a Monday in December. Two tracks were open for the Wednesday morning peak and four tracks were available that evening.
So, 48 hours to get two tracks open and 60 hours to restore normal services. But Clapham brought in the lawyers and within five years privatisation was fragmenting the railway. In retrospect, the 84 hours it took to reopen the West Coast Main Line after the Watford collision in 1996 was not a bad performance.
Then came Southall, followed by Ladbroke Grove and now Hatfield. And clearly the ethos had changed – and changed not at all as expected.
Privatisation was promoted as bringing private sector standards to the old state railway monolith, putting the customer first. Yet Railtrack and the train operating companies have shown no sense of urgency when it comes to giving the passengers what they really want after an accident – the train service restored as expeditiously as is consonant with safety.
So here we have those paragons of customer focused management imported from the private sector unable to achieve what the bumbling old railwaymen, whom they have from time to time so grievously disparaged, used to achieved as a matter of course. In fact, that is being kind. If Railtrack could have reinstated the track in twice the time Southern Region General Manager (that title again) took at Clapham, the ECML would have been back in business before the weather broke.
And that is another reason for following the Iron Duke's maxim about ‘doing the business of the day in the day'. In the railways you don't know what is going to happen next and by letting Hatfield drag on it was overtaken by the gauge corner cracking crisis and then the storms and flooding.
Clearly, the rot set in at Ladbroke Grove where Paddington was closed for 16 days. At the heart of this ‘stuff the passengers, let's drive them onto more dangerous forms of transport' philosophy, is health ‘n' safety hysteria backed by the new concept of the accident site as ‘scene of crime'.
As a reader reminded me, two recommendations of the Hidden Inquiry into Clapham brought this about. The first was that the police should take trackside control of an accident site but should defer to the fire brigade if there were a fire. Secondly, that a constable should accompany a qualified investigator to secure and record any evidence.
Unchecked by a weak HSE, which is working to a blame and punish remit, and a pusillanimous Railtrack these recommendations have been hi-jacked by the British Transport Police. What were reasonable requirements - for the accident site to be secured so that only he authorised rescuers and investigators could have access and supporting each investigator with someone with forensic training to bag and record ‘evidence' - has encouraged the BTP to take charge of the investigation and keep the experts away from the accident site.
Even worse at Hatfield was the involvement of the bomb squad, following two threats in the week before the derailment. This meant that the site was really sealed off and even the HMRI team could not get past the cordon until the next day.
On the day after the accident I was told by a senior policeman that there were six police forensic teams searching the site – four from the British Transport Police and two from the Hertfordshire force. The accident scene had been divided into three sectors and the ‘Scene of Crime Officer', assisted by technical advisors ‘ from the railway companies' would be searching ‘over several days'.
But even a that stage, around lunchtime on the Wednesday, the police admitted that nothing had been found to indicate either a bomb or vandalism. GNER Chief Executive Christopher Garnet had been allowed to see the vehicles close up by then and was able to confirm that all the wheels were intact.
Add in the broken rail, clearly shown on television, and Gerald Corbett's tendered resignation accepting responsibility and the direct cause was clear. So what were the police looking for?
Apocryphal stories abound of the search. Of grass being strimmed on an embankment to help the search – presumably
spreading any debris far and wide. Of a lock up garage broken open to recover a fragment of ‘shrapnel' that turned out to be a piece of ballast.
And when the police finally handed over the site on the Friday evening, the HSE were in forensic mode. One reason why recovery took so long is that the HSE teams refused to work under floodlights at night in case they missed a vital clue.
Then there was the HSE's requirement to recover the buffet car in one piece for analysis. This vehicle had been sliced into when it slid on its side into an overhead line electrification mast, causing all four fatalities in the accident.
Because of the damage the bodyshell would have lost much of its rigidity which, as always, had done so much to protect passengers elsewhere in the train. Our local hospital staff could not believe that there had been so few physical injuries despite the derailment happening at over 100mile/h.
Because of the lack of rigidity the vehicle had to be encased in a frame. As a result, the track relaying train began work with the buffet car still beside the track and sheeted over. The lift-out would not be accomplished until October 27, ten days after the derailment.
By then, Railtrack was into stuff the passenger, too. It was even suggested to WAGN, which sadly missed the recently departed and forcful Euan Cameron immediately after the accident, that the Moorgate-Potters Bar shuttle service should be suspended so that works trains could get to the site.
Just why or how a 10 or 15min interval shuttle on a four track railway would get in the way of works trains was never made clear, because WAGN told Railtrack to go away, or words to that effect.
Equally, by the Friday after the accident I was told that Railtrack had offered WAGN the opportunity to run an electric shuttle service between Welwyn Garden City and Stevenage , so that commuters north of Hatfield could connect with the fast trains into Kings Cross round the Hertford loop. WAGN declined the offer initially, but when it was eventually introduced it ran for a day before Railtrack withdrew the paths to make room for works trains.
And then, of course, the rail head checking epidemic became apparent. And then, as was said of the Spanish Armada, God blew with his winds and the railways were scattered, not to mention flooded.
But there is a common theme running through the events of October and November.
First, no railway manager had the intestinal fortitude or the force of personality to tell the police and the HSE, once it was clear that a broken rail was the cause, that they had 24 hours to complete their investigations and get their teams off the site before recovery of the vehicles and track relaying began.
Yes, it is difficult to ensure that life goes on when there are bodies in the mortuary as a result of someone's error, but that is what running an inherently risky business is all about – sometimes people will be killed. But does anyone seriously believe that if an aircraft crashed on a runway at Heathrow, the airport would remained closed for even a week? Or ask the same rhetorical question substituting coach and M1 motorway as appropriate.
But when I put it to a senior Railtrack source that he should have been taking on the HSE to get the ECML open he said ‘Roger, that would be like criticising Mother Teresa'.
And Gerald Corbett really sold the pass when he said on October 19 that in future ‘no broken rail would be acceptable'. This is technical tommy rot, as we failed engineers say. All you need is a 25tonne axle load on a wheel with a bad flat, preferably on a cold day, and the rail may crack.
That the railways have been good at managing such cracks is instanced by the fact that before Hatfield, only two passengers had been killed as a result of broken rails in the last 30 years.
No doubt taking a lead from Corbett's declaration, when the head checking epidemic spread, on the evening of 24 October, the ScotRail Zone Director closed the WCML north of Gretna Junction at two hours notice. After the decision, it is alleged, she was unobtainable by mobile phone or pager for four hours, with the railway in crisis. Contrast that with Fiennes driving through the night.
Or Southern Zone where on the morning after the first storm, the Director phoned Corbett with the news that the Zone was ‘out of control'. The zone stopped running even though some routes were clear.
I asked a distinguished railway manager, who was in charge of the Southern Region at the time of both the great storm of 1987 and the Clapham accident, what would have happened had he given Bob Reid I the same message. ‘Roger, I would have resigned before it happened' was his reply.
Now you may regard this item as the views of a backward looking railway dinosaur out of touch with the zeitgeist. But, and I am sorry if the gramophone is playing again, this sort of managerial loss of nerve and authority does not bedevil other industries. As I write, discussions have begun with the Aviation authorities on measures necessary to get Concorde back in service after the Paris crash.
In contrast no one in the Government or the industry cared that a premier railway route was closed for over three days. I bet the Treasury were rubbing their hand with glee as they try to pull back their contribution to the Ten year transport plan.