Nov 2005 - Rail sale good news for lawyers

01 June 2013

I admit it. I’ve made a mistake. I have previously said in this column that rail privatisation only benefited a few fat-cat businessmen. I was wrong. I’d forgotten about lawyers.

For lawyers, selling off rail was a bonanza. For them, Christmas now comes early and often. Rail privatisation is a vast legal job creation scheme. It is a solicitor's equivalent of owning a fatted calf with the Midas touch. Last month saw London's Northern Line closed for four days while safety adjustments were made. It might have inconvenienced 660,000 potential passengers a day, but for solicitors - it was a galloping gift horse!

Imagine the bills bulging as lawyer after lawyer picked and poked their way through the contracts that accompany the Public Private Partnership that the government forced on London's underground. The contracts that were drawn up involve 135 documents, covering 28,000 pages and containing two million words!

As the noise of the tubes fell silent, all you could hear across the capital was the sound of lawyers drooling. In fact, had there been as many engineers on the case as solicitors, the brake failures would have been sorted in no time.

Bob Kiley, the Commissioner of Transport for London, said he'd 'never seen anything so complicated or frustrating in all my life in the public sector' - but while he was disappointed, can you imagine the legal profession took a very different view!

At the same time we had a legal fest going on as investors in Railtrack tried to regain money they'd lost. Railtrack, you will recall, was the private company given the contract to look after the Britain's railway lines. Investors sought £157 million compensation from the government, claiming that former Transport Secretary Stephen Byers 'acted maliciously' and actively sought the firm's collapse. The case ended up in the High Court - a singularly expensive hobby.

The long and short of was - the investors lost, but the lawyers didn't! Neither did they come a financial cropper when they were involved in the Hatfield rail disaster. They enjoyed highly profitable months picking over the question of who was responsible for the track being inherently unsafe. For months the High Court was besieged by the be-wigged fraternity accusing and refuting allegations that senior managers from Balfour Beatty or Railtrack might be guilty of negligence. In the end the managers won (not guilty), the companies lost (guilty) but lawyers from both sides won (handsomely).

In case the profession should feel the pinch of poverty at the end of these cases, the government is now letting out more rail franchises. Given the LUL example above, how long is it going to take to sort out the legal niceties of the three new franchises? Can you imagine the hours of lawyers' time spent on defining the duties and legal responsibilities of a new West Midland franchise operating west coast main line outer suburban services together with regional and local services in the West Midlands?

So I was wrong. Rail privatisation has not, as I previously claimed, been a disaster for everyone except a few businessmen. I stand corrected, m'lud.

But it still begs the question of whether you'd sooner see lawyers employed in the railway industry - or train drivers and station staff.

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