Byers Market: Transport Crisis; a New Report Reveals the Full Horror of What Has Happened on the Railways; but the Present Transport Security Maybe the Best Hope for the Future

By Wolmar, Christian | New Statesman (1996), April 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Byers Market: Transport Crisis; a New Report Reveals the Full Horror of What Has Happened on the Railways; but the Present Transport Security Maybe the Best Hope for the Future


Wolmar, Christian, New Statesman (1996)


The misfortune of Stephen Byers is that his surname alliterates with both beleaguered and bozo. Yet despite the long list of his mistakes and mis-demeanours -- some of which, such as the Jo Moore/Martin Sixsmith business, would have amounted to a few paragraphs on the political pages in a less prominent ministry -- the case for saving Byers is a strong one.

At three recent private occasions involving senior railway executives, I heard nothing but praise for Byers. "He listens to us and tries to help," said one executive. "He didn't get involved in silly posturing over the industrial action," said another. "He is a class act," said a third.

Nigel Harris, editor of Rail magazine, says: "Byers inherited the most contaminated of poison chalices. His three biggest problems--Railtrack, the Tube and Nats [air traffic control] -- were all passed on to him by John Prescott. He's the first recent Transport Secretary to face up to the problems and try to make a difference."

Harris points out that, unlike Prescott who used to thunder on about the iniquities of the rail companies but did nothing to help passengers, Byers does not interfere daily in the minutiae of a complex industry.

On other aspects of his brief, such as local government, Byers is also reckoned to be doing a good job. His white paper on local government, while eschewing the type of local empowerment that is needed, relaxed some restrictions on the way councils borrow money, abolished council tax capping and allowed more freedom for better authorities to innovate. All of which sounds like exactly the sort of decentralisation that most Labour MPs, and every think-tank wonk in town, have demanded for ages.

True, Byers's handling of the Railtrack collapse was riven with mistakes. He was right to intervene in the industry, but wrong in the way that he did it. Railtrack was a basket case, and a stupid one as well. While absorbing taxpayers' cash by the bucket load, it paid its shareholders [pounds sterling]140m dividend on the same day in May 2001 that its chairman announced losses of [pounds sterling]534m.

But at the time of Byers's move in October last year, Railtrack, though well on its way to insolvency, hadn't quite got there. The minister should have negotiated secretly to take over the company at the prevailing share price (well below the [pounds sterling]3.90 per share that the government got in 1996) and threatened the directors that, if they did not agree, the taxpayers' tap would be turned off.

Instead, he played to the backbenchers' gallery, stressing repeatedly that the shareholders would not get any taxpayers' money. He might reasonably have expected to get away with it, were the judicial system not run by the sort of people who hold shares. Nor did "renationalisation without compensation" look such apolitical triumph when it emerged that most of Railtrack's 11,000 employees -- half of them humble signallers -- owned stock. …

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