Network Rail’s performance is poor enough to test an archbishop’s patience, writes Martin Vander Weyer
The archbishop and I — not having been formally introduced — confined ourselves to an exchange of despairing glances. We were at Doncaster, in the buffet car of the 19.13 from York to King’s Cross, listening to a series of apologetic but hopelessly uninformative bulletins about how long we might be delayed by a signal failure at Finsbury Park. ‘The driver says it’s a waiting game, there’s trains queuing in front and behind,’ was the announcer’s best shot. To add insult to injury, the buffet could not even provide the saintly Dr Sentamu with his preferred tipple — which, I can exclusively reveal, is Guinness.
This cameo of frustration took place on the eve of last week’s announcement by Network Rail that it aims to sharpen its act by hiring 200 more maintenance engineers and making less use of outside contractors for essential track and signal work. It was the post-Christmas fiasco at Rugby that brought this to a head. But the real question is not why Network Rail has suddenly lost its grip, but why the travelling public has put up for so long with the sub-standard efforts of this bizarre not-for-dividend entity, which was invented by the Treasury to replace Railtrack in 2002 on the promise that — without the distraction of greedy shareholders — it would provide a shining new model of railway efficiency.
Since then, statistics tell us performance has improved from roughly one in five trains running late (in the dismal period after the Hatfield crash) to one in eight. That still leaves travellers suffering, but until now they seem to have swallowed the ‘not-for-profit’ propaganda and taken a more forgiving view of Network Rail than was ever taken of Railtrack — even after the Grayrigg crash, which was directly attributed, in the initial investigation, to a failure of track maintenance. It’s also true that the rail industry had faith in Network Rail’s first boss, the plain-speaking engineer John Armitt. But Armitt has moved on to the even more thankless task of running the Olympic Delivery Authority, his successor Iain Coucher does not carry the same clout, and it’s time for rail-rage: we should angrily demand a service that matches international standards.
At King’s Cross I caught up with the archbishop in the taxi queue. We were so late that he had given up hope of supper — and perhaps a restoring Guinness — at Lambeth Palace, and was wondering whether the porter would be awake to let him in. ‘The trouble is,’ I suggested, ‘we just put up with this. Our expectations have fallen too low.’ He smiled benignly as he climbed into a cab: perhaps the consolation of the journey was that it had provided the theme for a sermon.
As for me, I journeyed onwards the following day by Eurostar and TGV to the Alps, in a trance of pleasure at how calm and stylish it all was. As we approached Chambéry — the first stop south of Paris — I realised why I felt so relaxed. Not only were we running to time, but for more than three hours there had not been a single announcement. Forget bogus statistics: Network Rail should aim to match the French, and have literally nothing to apologise for.
This week’s stock-market tumble tells us nothing we did not already know. Share indices have been defying gravity since the New Year while economists argued over whether the US is already in recession (the view of David Rosenberg of Merrill Lynch) or merely heading that way briefly — the view put forward by Allister Heath here a couple of weeks ago. Either way, the last whiff of the economic feelgood factor — in the high street, house prices or the stock market — has just evaporated. The fun now will be to watch what that does to politics.
The former ICI chairman Sir John Harvey-Jones died earlier this month, in the week that the remnants of what in his day was Britain’s mightiest industrial giant became a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Akzo Nobel. A complex man behind his bluff exterior and loud ties — the product of a childhood so tortured that he contemplated suicide at prep school — Harvey-Jones’s misfortune was to reach the zenith of his corporate career in an era when hierarchical companies such as ICI preferred senior management to be conducted as an unspun collegiate effort in which the cult of flamboyant personality had no place. Like the Japanese, his colleagues believed ‘a nail that stands out must be hammered down’, and they conspired to spoil Harvey-Jones’s sometimes boastful memoirs by obliging him not to identify any of them by surname. He had his revenge by making himself so famous as ‘The Troubleshooter’ — forerunner of reality-television formats all the way to Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares — that in a poll in 1992, one in five respondents said he would make a better prime minister than John Major. Had he been born a generation later, he would have hopped flamboyantly from company to company as a hired-in chief executive, and made himself a huge fortune on the way through.
Harvey-Jones handed me the only award I ever received for journalism, but that yellowing certificate is a source of far less pride than the accolade of a mention in the late Hugh Massingberd’s Daydream Believer, where I am listed with a dozen other ‘young writers’ whose careers Hugh encouraged. A.N. Wilson’s eulogy for Hugh appears in this issue, but let me add an anecdote — to bring us back to railways, and to offer evidence that the celebrated ‘Claridge’s breakfast’ story recalled by Wilson was not apocryphal. When Hugh and I once boarded a morning train from York to London, he was horrified by an apologetic announcement that the restaurant car was out of action. He set off disconsolately for the buffet queue — to return moments later beaming with the news that the announcer was wrong and a table awaited us. Porridge, kippers, the full InterCity sizzler and second helpings of black pudding followed; the chef shook our hands; the astonished waiter received a tenner tip; and at King’s Cross the great man strode off replete, rubicund, radiating bonhomie. Let’s hope heaven’s dining car is as satisfying; at least, as far as we know, it’s not at the mercy of Network Rail.