The smoke was still rising over the charred wreckage of London's horrendous train crash Tuesday morning when the blame-game began, and the fingers started pointing.
There were a lot of places to point.
The two crowded commuter trains that smashed into each other outside Paddington Station were run by two different companies. The locomotives and passenger cars were rented from three other companies. The track and signal equipment belong to yet another company, which contracts out maintenance and repair work to several other firms.
That fragmentation of ownership and responsibility is a legacy of Britain's hurried transition to rail privatization over the past five years. Until 1994, the whole system was a unified government-owned enterprise; today, more than 100 different corporations own pieces of the network. Even rail regulation is fragmented.
And that's one of the key reasons why passengers, regulators and many in the rail industry agree that privatization, so far, has been a costly flop. "Punctuality and reliability are down, fares are up, complaints are way up, and government subsidies have doubled since privatization," said Tom Winsor, the national rail regulator, a newly created government post that oversees the private owners. "Even the simple things don't get done. Why can't they clean the toilets? Why do you need a PhD to understand the ticket prices?"
The various elements of the newly private industry have become notorious for shifting blame for all problems to other parts of the fragmented network. "When they announce on [the PA system] why the train is late this time, they always, always say it's the other guy's fault," said Jonathan Bray, director of the passenger group Save Our Railroads. Implausible rail excuses have become fodder for humor magazines and stand-up comics.
The Independent newspaper's "Great Rail Fiascoes" column recently reported on a passenger who got stuck in a toilet. The door wouldn't open, and the intercom was broken. In desperation, he pulled the emergency brake cord, stopping all trains on the main line. The track owner blamed the train operating company, which blamed the passenger car company, which blamed the maintenance company, which blamed the passenger.
The one genuine success in the privatized system is the rail freight operation, in which both performance and profitability have improved. This is in large part an American triumph, because the winning bidder for the main freight line was the Wisconsin Central Railroad.
While acknowledging many of the problems, passenger rail companies have repeatedly said the trains are safe. That boast will be harder to make after Tuesday's crash, in which at least 70 people died. Police said today that the toll could reach 127, a fatality total greater than any under the nationalized railroad system. Rescue workers spent most of today erecting a crane to gain access to corpses believed snared in the twisted wreckage. Many families won't know for sure until next week whether their missing relatives were on one of the two trains.
The trainload of rail problems facing Britain is ironic, because this compact country should be a great place to run a railroad. Britain invented trains, and the great 19th-century British rail companies were among the first multinational corporations. British money and engineering built railroads around the world, including the first U.S. rail lines.
Unlike the United States, there is almost no corner of the United Kingdom that doesn't have regular rail passenger service. The left-leaning government that took over after World War II nationalized many industries and merged all railway companies into a single public giant. In the 1980s, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher moved in the other direction, privatizing the telephone, power and water industries and even the government printing office.
But Thatcher never took on British Rail, the company that people here loved to hate. It was her Conservative successor, John Major, who privatized the trains. "It was a rush job, because the Conservatives knew that the Labor Party was likely to win the next election and would oppose privatization," said David Morphet, director general of The Railway Forum, the train industry's trade association. "To get it done fast, they fragmentized the system far more than anybody would have wanted. Of course that has caused problems."
Tuesday's fatal crash, and the failure to pin down responsibility for it, have prompted some calls for re-nationalization, but the government has shown no interest in that.
Rather, the hope is that public anger, tighter regulation and better management will gradually produce a rail network that the world's oldest train-riding country can be proud of. "The only thing we can do," said Winsor, the rail regulator, "is encourage them, fine them and sanction them until they produce the kind of service people are entitled to."