During her premiership, Margaret Thatcher privatised much of Britain’s critical infrastructure: power distribution, water supply and telecoms; but the railway she did not. Despite its lack of popularity at the time, British Rail was highly impressive both in the efficiency of its operations and the relatively low level of subsidy it received from the government when compared with other European state-owned railways. Whilst the reason behind Thatcher’s decision to leave British Rail in the hands of the government can only be speculated, the ensuing disaster that followed when John Major took the plunge makes her decision seem a wise one.

Before privatisation, British Rail managed almost every aspect of railway operations, whether that be the manufacturing of new trains or employing the drivers, signallers and station staff that run the railway. This led to good communication and cooperation between departments but it also meant that many employees may have spent their whole careers with British Rail, accruing years worth of knowledge and experience. In the process of privatisation the once unified British Rail was split into fragments, all run by separate companies with separate interests. This lead to many employees either leaving or being made redundant, many of whom had worked in maintenance and engineering.

In a hastily drawn up plan following an unexpected election victory and a manifesto commitment, British Rail was divided up. The running of passenger services would be split into twenty-five different ‘Train Operating Units’ with separate companies known as ROSCOs owning the trains themselves. This section of the scheme worked for the most part, it would be Railtrack, the initially publicly owned organisation responsible for the track, signals and stations that would prove to be the fatal flaw in this plan.

Although initially publicly owned since its formation in 1994, Railtrack was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1996 following lobbying and support from cabinet ministers. All seemed well initially, but this would not last long. In the following six years there would be a spate of accidents, with Railtrack at fault in some capacity in almost every case. Whilst some of Railtrack’s problems were a result of the fragmentation of the railway, with responsibilities split across different organisations, others were a result of the mismanagement of Railtrack.

This is where the loss of employees would really start to cause issues. Railway operations, especially maintenance require a great deal of experience, but Railtrack did not properly acknowledge this. Railtrack would outsource and subcontract at every possible opportunity due to the lower short-term costs associated with these practices. This resulted in workers with minimal training and in many cases no experience carrying out safety critical tasks. This would result in mistakes being made with at least 150 casualties suffering the consequences across multiple accidents.

It was not just poor maintenance and inexperience though. Generally, the most catastrophic accidents occur when two trains collide, and the Britain has been no stranger to incidents of this nature. In 1988 35 people died and 484 were injured after the Clapham Junction rail crash. In response to this, it was decided that equipment that could automatically stop a train if it passed a red signal would be developed. The result of this was Automatic Train Protection, a promising new system that could continuously ensure that a train was not travelling too fast to stop in time. But the rollout was halted by Railtrack after it was deemed too expensive. In the following five years there would be two serious collisions resulting in over 500 injured and 38 killed, both would have been prevented by ATP.

These almost annual disasters would spell the beginning of the end for Railtrack, with the year of the new millennium finishing with the Hatfield rail crash, an incident caused by an infrastructure failure. Railtrack would have to spend over half a billion pounds on repairs to prevent a similar accident occurring again. Coupled with spiralling costs on other projects, Railtrack fell into administration. One year later the government attempted to allow private companies to bid to acquire Railtrack but there was no interest. This resulted in the formation of publicly owned Network Rail.

Whilst Network Rail has suffered accidents in its time, it has overall proven to be very successful. Much of the previously subcontracted work was brought inhouse through various training and apprenticeship schemes. This has led to a significant reduction in the cost to the taxpayer and one of the safest railways in the world.