Magic and the decline of railway privatisation

There is something pleasantly surreal about this story. London Reconnections reports on the appearance of the heads of Tube Lines, the Underground, and Mr. Chris Bolt before the London Assembly’s transport committee. It doesn’t sound obviously hilarious, but then, who is Chris Bolt? You may vaguely remember him as the Rail Regulator, the chap who had the unenviable task of acting as ref between Railtrack, the train operators, the rolling stock lessors, and the Government in the glory years of rail privatisation. That was all 10 years ago, so why is he being quizzed by the committee?

Because the Tube PPP contracts specify that he, and only he, act as arbitrator of any disputes between the contractors and the Tube. Not the institution of the Rail Regulator, which in any case has been abolished – Mr Bolt personally.

It’s been a while. Did they ever lose touch with him? What colour was his hair when he answered the call? I can imagine Department for Transport civil servants looking on park benches and in squats in Dalston, scrutinising all the Facebook pages ending in Bolt, placing advertisements in provincial newspapers. What if they hadn’t been able to trace him? Would his next-of-kin have inherited the heavy responsibility – the DfT Director, Railways descending on an otherwise harmless citizen, like some Sicilian matriarch in a grey suit bringing news that the vendetta is now up to you?

Or is the process less brutally secular? Perhaps a Bolt will simply emerge, like the next Dalai Lama.

Of course, Bolt’s role is deeply mythic. Alone, the Bolt continues to guard the sacred wisdom of the Railtrack years, wandering in the wilderness. One day, he will return to judge Tube Lines’ trespasses, or rather not:

Chris Bolt felt it was important to reiterate that the increased cost of the contract was not based on the failures of Tube Lines so far, but on a natural increase in the theoretical cost of the upgrade work.

The faith cannot err; it can only be betrayed.

Even Boris Johnson has repented of rail privatisation.

It is time to bring an end to this demented system.

Actually, he’s only recanted – I see no sign of repentance from the man who accused Stephen Byers of being as bad as Robert Mugabe, not once but twice, in order to defend Railtrack after the corpses had piled up.


  1. Tom

    If you watched the TfL Board meeting last week it got even more surreal – basically Boris was saying ‘regardless of what the Arbiter judges TfL won’t pay a penny more than TfL think they should, and would the Government mind taking £400m off the shareholders of Bechtel and Amey and giving it to us to make up the difference, please?’ all of which begs the question as to why on earth they expect Tube Lines to stick to the concept of independent arbitration or indeed anyone they deal with to stick to the basic principles of legal possession of private property. Bolt came down heavily in TfL’s favour, of course, but that’s not enough.

    I’m not sure even Tony Benn at his most foaming would be advocating Alistair Darling stealing nearly half a billion quid off some people in order to pay those same people the money someone whose judgement both sides are supposed to accept has judged they should be paid.

    Like a lot of Borisisms (the Byers bashing is completely in character, of course) it only makes sense if you look at it from the point of view of someone trying to put a thin PR-based ‘Heroic Boris’ angle on absolutely everything. There’s no chance of Darling let alone Osborne coughing up, but as long as Boris looks like he’s taking on vested interests long enough for the press to lose interest in the story, it’s chalked up as a win. Likewise the Northern line closure story is heavily spun – TfL will quietly agree to a closure programme marginally less insane than the one they’ve planted as ‘crazy Tube Lines shutting the Tube at 8:30pm’ and call it ‘Heroic Boris Stands Up For London’. God knows when we’ll get the Piccadilly resignalled at this rate.

    Meanwhile, the Union chaps on the Pro London transport panel with me last Saturday were gleefully pointing out that a substantial chunk of London’s transport has renationalised itself by being bought by the French, Dutch, Hong Kong or German state railway companies.

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