Safety First (The Permanent Way, by David Hare)

If stage show Starlight Express (the last one this blog looked at) is a bright and breezy celebration of the sheer bloody wonderfulness of railways, then David Hare’s play The Permanent Way is what happens when Starlight Express is held up to a dark mirror. Starlight Express is all big heart, cheerful smiles, and happy tunes; The Permanent Way is its nightmare twin: a tar black soul, fierce invective; an excoriating scream of pure rage.

Stage shows about railways are rare. You can find plenty of examples including train travel, but those in which railways are the main narrative theme come along a lot less often. The Permanent Way fills that criteria magnificently. Sadly for the then government and the rail industry of the day, it presented them in the worst possible light. Looking at the play today is an extraordinary experience, because it’s already virtually a museum piece. It offers a glimpse into a British rail industry only a decade and a half gone, yet almost unrecognisable in its concerns.

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Today’s big worries around the British rail network are to do with providing sufficient capacity to cope with increasing passenger demand, and finding ways to undertake schemes to do that affordably. Improving the rail network has proved vastly expensive and fraught with delays, cost overruns and enormous passenger inconvenience. The current bête noire is Network Rail’s electrification programme. Electric trains are more reliable, cheaper to maintain, accelerate faster, cause less local environmental nuisance and are, in general, better by far than diesel trains. While most mainland European railway networks are largely electrified and have been for decades, Britain’s has lagged a long way behind. When Network Rail was finally given the go-ahead a few years ago to undertake electrification of two main lines (the Great Western and the Midland), the Trans-Pennine route and a few other bits and bobs, it comprehensively underestimated how long it would take to do, and how much it would cost. The projects have been delayed, rephased and a great deal of nuisance has been caused to everyone.

What’s the problem? Lack of technical expertise? The rail industry’s underlying structure (maybe vertically integrated businesses would have been more incentivised to come up with realistic plans if they also suffered the disruption caused to operations when deadlines are continually missed)? No-one seems to know, but it’s putting the likelihood of future electrification – and other projects – at risk. Why would the government continue to allow the rail industry to undertake big projects if it keeps coming back for additional cash to complete them?

Fifteen years ago, however, as The Permanent Way was being written, the rail industry’s big problem was safety. We’ve already almost forgotten what it was like. It has been nine years since a passenger or member of the railway workforce has been killed in a train crash (see RSSB’s 2015-16 Annual Safety Performance Report, here).

When The Permanent Way was first performed, in 2003, it had been just one year since the last fatal accident (at Potters Bar), there had been one at Great Heck the year before (though it was a freak), and before that there had been the Hatfield crash in 2000, the Ladbroke Grove crash in 1999 and the Southall rail crash in 1997.

The Permanent Way was playwright David Hare’s response to this, and to the suggestion that the privatisation of British Rail, with a cost-cutting and profit-maximising motive on the part of rail companies, was to blame. The Guardian newspaper called it “a terrible indictment of a culture which puts profit before people” while The Daily Telegraph, usually on the opposite side of any argument from The Guardian, said it was “the most significant and revealing new play of the year”.

In some ways, it’s barely a play at all as we generally understand them. It doesn’t have a plot as such, nor a traditional narrative. It’s easiest to think of it as a staged version of one of those documentary films where talking heads involved in an issue give interviews which are edited together to tell the story. That’s essentially what happened with The Permanent Way. Hare and his cast interviewed many people involved in or associated with the railway industry, from secretary of state for transport John Prescott, to train crash survivors, via the chief executive of Railtrack, track workers and various train operator managers.

Over the course of the play, they tell the story (or rather, Hare’s view of the story) of a privatised railway network that placed profits before safety, and how it took the lobbying of plucky, outraged crash survivors to force Prescott into promising the network-wide installation of safety system Automatic Train Protection (ATP).

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The prologue features baffled train passengers (originally interviewed at Waterloo station), struggling to work out why the government has failed to find a way to privatise the railway network that demonstrably works:

Passenger 7 The railways are a symbol…What are they a symbol of? Of national breakdown, that’s what.

The play then builds to a shockingly visceral reenactment of a train crash, a brilliantly effective and emotionally draining piece of theatre. Before and after, we’re taken through the possible factors in the series of train crashes, the institutional fragmentation that meant no-one knew whose responsibility safety was, the perverse incentives that privatisation imposed which made running a less safe railway better business than a safe one, and the appalled reaction the crashes generated.

Senior Civil Servant The Treasury model for privatisation was driven by this rather theoretical view of competition.

Senior Rail Executive Everyone knows: the Balkanisation was a complete disaster. The thing was broken up into 113 pieces, like beads thrown onto a table…

For those with some knowledge of the railway industry of the time, some of the interest is in working out who the characters are. Prescott is named in the script, but the rest are given more generic titles: Senior Civil Servant, Survivors’ Group Founder, and so on. Managing Director of Railtrack is obviously the luckless Gerald Corbett. Despite Hare’s obvious opposition to rail privatisation, of which Railtrack was the most high-profile part, Corbett actually manages to get a word or two in for his defence (albeit ones which make him look as though Teflon shoulder pads were part of his business attire), referring to the Ladbroke Grove crash:

Managing Director of Railtrack …I’m the first to admit, I made a mistake, I didn’t go down there in person because we had a protocol. Because it was passengers, you see, because it was passengers who died, the protocol was: the train operating companies would go. But of course, inevitably, you can guess what happens, the operators turn up, then quietly they say to the relatives, ‘Oh God, yes, Railtrack, terrible organisation, don’t look after the infrastructure, quite agree.’ and you appear uncaring. Which you’re not.

The basis of Another Senior Rail Executive is clearly GNER chief executive Christopher Garnett. Crash survivor Nina is author Nina Bawden, one of the highest profile survivors of the Potters Bar crash, widowed in same. I’m pretty certain that Campaigning Solicitor is Louise Christian, who represented families bereaved by the Paddington train crash, and had a high profile as a result.

Campaigning Solicitor The bereaved know what they want. They want to know that what they have been through will not happen again, and that somebody will be held accountable. These two things.

For most theatre-goers, the identities of the real people behind the stage names would be a mystery, but perhaps Hare decided it didn’t matter. By anonymising his characters, it feels as though Hare might be suggesting they’re all the same, that the railway was run by incompetents or people who were competent but hamstrung by the dysfunctional nature of the privatised industry. Like any good documentary maker with a story to tell, an argument to win and a slant to put on, Hare selects all the best quotes for his ‘characters’, and presumably leaves out the dull ones and those which might have added a bit more nuance to the story.

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Garnett was upset by the selection of quotes attributed to him (see interview in The Guardian here). On learning that it was a broken rail that had caused that Hatfield crash (therefore attributable to Railtrack), rather than a problem with train maintenance (which would have been GNER’s fault), the play has Another Senior Rail Executive remembering his first thought was “Thank Christ it’s not us”. I met Garnett a few times when I was a transport journalist, and while he was far from being a cuddly philanthropist when it came to GNER, he certainly wasn’t the heartless blame-shifter The Permanent Way would have you believe.

Hare, however, is firmly on the side of the train crash victims. Not that anyone could be opposed to crash victims, but Hare clearly believes it was only thanks to their efforts, their testimony, and the efforts of their campaigning solicitors, that Prescott agreed to the nationwide implementation of Automatic Train Protection in the aftermath of the Paddington crash, no matter the cost. Consider Bereaved Mother meeting John Prescott (from Part Two of the play):

Bereaved Mother I said: ‘There are two train-protection systems. There’s a cheap one that’s no good, works with magnets, and there’s a proper one they used on the Continent called ATP. It’s more expensive.

There is a silence.

‘We need ATP to be introduced throughout the network.’

John Prescott ‘ATP will be in the next Queen’s Speech.’

Bereaved Mother. Prescott looked at me.

John Prescott ‘You’re a dangerous woman.’

Bereaved Mother I said, ‘I know’.

John Prescott ‘And do you know why? Do you know why you’re dangerous?’

Bereaved Mother ‘I know why. Because I’m not paid. And I won’t go away’.

That’s the other thing we’ve largely forgotten today, the febrile atmosphere in which confidence in railway safety had been so badly undermined that Prescott felt he had no alternative but to say that when it came to fitting ATP, “finance isn’t a problem”. Prescott was offering a blank cheque to reassure the public that the railways could be made safe against future train crashes. The railway industry and government’s preferred solution was Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS) which was estimated to give some 70-80% of the benefits of ATP at a fraction of the costs; estimated at the time as £150m compared to £1bn for ATP. Yet Prescott said “£1bn isn’t a great amount of money, frankly”. Solicitor Louise Christian kept busy on the airwaves over the next couple of years, demanding the installation of ATP on behalf of the bereaved. Even after the government-commissioned report into railway safety systems by engineer Sir David Davies explained that a staged approach of fitting TPWS before upgrading to ATP would save more lives than abandoning TPWS in favour of starting work on national ATP immediately, mainly through quicker installation, safety campaigners continued to demand ATP at once. You would never have guessed that rail travel was still one of the safest ways to travel, and that spending the same amount of money proposed for ATP on road safety instead would save multiple times more lives.

The arguments over ATP rumbled on for several years. It became more and more clear that it was neither technically feasible nor affordable to deliver ATP as the crash victim survivors and bereaved families had hoped (see this report in The Engineer from 2002), to their vociferous disappointment, especially given Prescott’s (foolish) money-no-object promise. Their sense of betrayal is one of the themes driven home by The Permanent Way.

Though The Permanent Way angrily refers to 2002’s Potters Bar crash, the potential role of private sector maintenance companies in its causes, and the lack of a formal public inquiry into the crash, this was in fact to be a turning point for the railway industry. By the time of The Permanent Way‘s premiere in 2003, Railtrack had been abolished and replaced with not-for-dividend Network Rail. The rail industry was seen to be doing a lot more on safety, for instance by Network Rail bringing infrastructure maintenance back in-house, allowing a better understanding of maintenance needs and the application of national standards.

By 2005, what would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier took place one evening on BBC Radio 4. Comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb included a sketch in their (brilliant) series That Mitchell and Webb Sound, mocking the idea of rail crash victims or their relatives playing a prominent role in dictating railway safety policy. In the sketch, Mitchell plays desperate-for-a-quote BBC Radio reporter Chris Powell, while Webb plays Tom Hilton, whose wife recently died in a train crash. Powell wants Hilton to condemn a train operator for not installing a “laser assisted train early warning system”. Hilton, however, thinks he might not be the person to ask…

Powell It’s because you’ve got personal experience of a rail tragedy that your views are so important.

Hilton Really? I would have thought it’s because I’ve got personal experience of a rail tragedy that my views should be dismissed out of hand…you really should talk to someone else. It’s impossible for me to have any objectivity at all.


Powell Right, but if spending the £3bn on the system could bring back your wife, that would be worth it?

Hilton Well obviously, but I must stress, I lack any objectivity.

Powell Nevertheless, what would you say to the [rail] minister? What would your message be to him?

Hilton My message would be, minister, good luck in judging how to allocate your finite resources given the many competing demands you face.

It was startlingly brave at the time, although you could find any number of railway industry personnel and commentators who thought much the same thing but had found it difficult to put their heads above the parapet for fear of offending, or causing further hurt to, those injured in the 1990s/early 2000s train crashes or bereaved families.

It would be 2007 before there would be another fatal rail crash where the fault lay with the rail industry. This time it was the derailment of a Virgin train at Grayrigg, killing one passenger. There hasn’t been one since; Britain’s railways are now the safest of the top 10 European rail networks, as industry safety body RSSB recently noted:


And that’s without the nationwide installation of ATP at all. Most railway lines still use TPWS.

I saw The Permanent Way in Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in 2005, and although still shocking it was already losing some of its impact. As That Mitchell and Webb Sound had demonstrated, panic over safety on the rail network was beginning to decline and the safety-systems-at-any-cost mentality was looking increasingly unrealistic. As far as I can tell it hasn’t been staged recently. It seems somehow antiquated already, referring to a different railway industry altogether.

View of electrification gantries awaiting completion on the Great Western Main Line in the cutting between Moulsford Bridge & Sill Bridge in Cholsey. Progress is being made, but more slowly than planned. © Copyright Bill Nicholls and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
View of electrification gantries awaiting completion on the Great Western Main Line in the cutting between Moulsford Bridge & Sill Bridge in Cholsey. Progress is being made, but more slowly than planned.
© Copyright Bill Nicholls and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
If no-one is staging a modern equivalent, I suppose it’s because it’s a lot harder to dramatise the scandal that is the loss of electrical engineering expertise on the British railway network. It was in the late 1980s that the last major main line electrification project was completed, on the East Coast route. In the intervening two and a half decades it appears that the knowledge of how to do such a job vanished, leaving Network Rail to grossly underestimate the costs and timescales for electrifying the Great Western Main Line (a much shorter route, too). It bought a pile-driving train designed to install electrification masts in double-quick time, factory fashion, only for it to become clear there were essential (but forgotten) buried services at the side of the tracks, so the location of each pile had to be individually inspected by track workers anyway. But that sort of story is a whole lot less dramatically engaging than a group of train crash survivors facing down a secretary of state for transport.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Hare, David (2003): The Permanent Way. London: Faber and Faber

Merlin, Bella (2003): The Permanent Way workpack. London: The National Theatre. Download it here.

…and anything linked to in the text above

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