Big Tin

Big tin: IT infrastructure used by organisations to run their businesses. And other stuff too when I feel like it…

Whatever happened to the railway?

Have you noticed how no-one talks about the railway any more? From BBC downwards, the place where you catch a train is now a train station, not a railway station. In other words, we talk about the vehicles, not the system. And the problem with that is that we’re getting a worse service and it’s costing us a lot more.

The reason why we’ve lost the concept of a railway system is clear: there is no system any more. Since the rushed, ideological privatisation of British Rail in the dying days of the last Tory administration, the railway has been run by train operators, such as Southern or First Great Western, and an infrastructure operator, Network Rail. Within each of these two broad groups — train and infrastructure operators — there are further schisms, such as train leasing companies, train refurbishment companies, track maintenance companies, signalling and telecommunications etc etc. The list goes on.

Railways are inherently complex organisations: they’re subject to disruption by all sorts of events, most of them not entirely or at all under the railway’s control. People fling themselves off platforms in front of trains, hardware wears out or fails before its time, external electricity supplies go down, weather results in key personnel — think train drivers and signalmen — being unable to get to work, and so on. You can imagine.

At the best of times, for a system such as a railway to work effectively it needs communication between the various elements. In the days of a single railway organisation, it wasn’t perfect but at least everyone was working for the same employer and could be orchestrated as such.

Today, that is no longer the case. Each organisation has a profit motive first which means there has to be a cash incentive to make something happen that’s out of the ordinary. Usually, that works to the disbenefit of the rest of us. For example, you want to make a train connection but your incoming train is 10 minutes late. In BR days, the connecting train might well have been held for the benefit of the arriving passengers. No longer. There’s a financial penalty for train operators if they are late so today you can happily watch your connecting train drive away as you arrive at the station.

Another classic example is a small incident that happened in July 2011 at the entrance to Edinburgh Waverley station. A train derailed but it was a slow-speed incident, the train stayed upright, and no-one was hurt. In BR days, a crew would have been out to to jack it up and get on its way, and make overnight repairs to the track. In this incident, before the train could be moved, there had to be a full investigation to find out what had failed in order to establish who would pay for the damage. This meant that, instead of there being a delay of perhaps an hour or three, it took a day and a half before Edinburgh was fully open for trains again.

Given that, you can imagine what happens when one railway company needs to contact another in an emergency. Something has gone wrong and it needs to be sorted out, as passengers are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Since the profit motive comes first, the various parties have to talk about who will pay, who is at fault and therefore potentially liable, and whether it’s worth fixing now or later. That’s before they get around to talking about how to solve the problem. Meanwhile, passengers sit in trains for hours.

This is not a hypothetical problem: it’s happened plenty of times. Yes, we’ve had some nice new trains following privatisation. We’ve also had beyond-inflation price increases every year to pay for them — and for the huge profit margins the trains companies demand before they will get involved, even though their profits are underwritten by the government — that’s you and me.

Privatisation of the railways has been a disaster overall. We’ve lost the concept of a railway system, and replaced it with a patchwork of train operators’ turfs, each of which doesn’t connect, and results in a blizzard of confusing ticket prices as they attempt to segment the market and screw more cash out of the customers (we’re no longer passengers). Woe betide you if you miss a train, even if it’s not your fault, as the mega-prices are backed up by penalties if you don’t get exactly the right ticket.

As my good friend John May sings: it’s time for a change.

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Filed under: Current affairs, mergers & acquisitions, Railways, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lessons from Murdoch’s News Corp

There’s a number of depressing conclusions to be drawn, even at this early stage of affairs from the revelations about News Corp’s activities.

The first is that people — from individuals rightly sickened at the thought of News of the World journalists poring over Milly Dowler’s voicemails to politicians who should have known better — only seem to have voiced concerns when it involved a little girl. ‘It could have been us’, runs the thought.

And yet, the hacking — if it deserves that description as it only seems to have involved dialling into publicly available numbers and trying passwords until they found one that worked — had not only been going on for years but was known about for years. Few seem to have cared much about it when it involved people seen as disposable — actors, sportspeople, Z-list celebrities and the like.

It’s much the same when you discuss the issue of whether the UK should retain the monarchy. The two most common responses I’ve encountered concern the individuals — the Queen’s doing a good job and I wouldn’t want Blair — or the tourist money they supposedly bring in. Whether or not a country that describes itself as a modern democracy can continue to do so while it has an unelected head of state seems to be irrelevant: it’s simply not part of the discussion.

In both cases — Murdoch or royalty — the principal of whether it;s correct per se to hack into phones or to maintain an unelected head of state is not an argument it’s possible to have, or that people raise with themselves. Issues seem only to matter if they has a directly personal relevance. How we are governed seems not to fall into that category.

The second issue is that the ones truly responsible for this dismal state of affairs — the politicians who have been kowtowing to News Corp all these years — seem likely to be the ones who will be let off lightly. Cameron will be dented and might, in the most optimistic of scenarios, resign. But the rest of them will get away with it.

This is a direct consequence of the feeble level of political debate in this country, as I’ve already noted. It seems we get the politicians we deserve. If we continue to buy the News of the World — or Sun on Sunday as it will morph — then nothing will have fundamentally changed.

Yet the third issue is one that can be easily fixed: the low level of priority assigned by mobile operators to security compared to convenience. Voicemails seem to have been ridiculously easy to break into because passwords weren’t changed from their defaults; subscribers are unlikely even to have known their voicemails had a password let alone that they needed to change them because the operators didn’t tell them about it.

Britain prides itself on being a stable democracy with traditions many of which have changed little over the last 500 years. Consequently, people are not encouraged to think about issues of governance or principal involving public life. Maybe it’s time we did.

Filed under: Current affairs, , , , , ,

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