The Permanent Way

David Hare
Debbie Hicks
The Vaults, Launcelot Street

Paul Dodds (as Virgin boss) & Company Credit: Nobby Clark
Sakuntala Ramanee as a casualty of the Ladbroke Grove crash Credit: Nobby Clark
Tej Obano , Anna Acton , Sakuntala Ramanee, Jonathan Coote Credit: Nobby Clark

It all seemed so simple to the politicians of the 1990s. The railways could go the way of other public services and thrive under privatisation and competition.

As the civil servant, the banker and the treasury official in David Hare’s play The Permanent Way explain, it was a matter of breaking the system into 113 parts, throwing “the beads onto the table and see what happens.”

It must have looked good for a time. But as David Hare points out, there is “in the story of how British Rail was first auctioned off at bargain prices, to the fourfold profit of the City of London, a painful parable about the badness of British government.”

It involved four horrific train crashes that we hear about in the words of those who ran the railways, the politicians and the casualties.

There is the 1997 Southall crash of the Great Western train from Swansea, with its safety system off and its driver not qualified to use it.

The policeman (Jonathan Coote) who took charge tells us of his shock at the treatment of the dead left in the wrecked carriages for hours despite his objections, though the media do get pictures of environment minister John Prescott (Paul Dodds) outside the wreckage saying, “this must never happen again.”

But it does happen again, with the Ladbroke Grove crash, killing 31 and prompting the Cullen inquiry that detailed the many system causes of the crash from too many contractors being used to carry out safety work to the repeated failure to address a difficult to see signal placement that kept being passed on red.

Of course the installation of Automatic Train Protection (ATP) would have prevented such crashes, but such a measure was repeatedly being rejected in a cost / benefit analysis. Never mind, we again get John Prescott saying, “this must never happen again.”

And of course it does, with the Hatfield crash and the Potters Bar crash. Each gives us more disturbing stories from its victims.

Jacqui Dubois gives a fine performance as the mother who learns about her son’s death on Ceefax and later is given seven and a half thousand pounds in compensation for his death. Meanwhile, the company was fined one and half million and its managing director sold his shares for three million.

A mother (Anna Acton) of someone killed in the Ladbroke Grove crash describes a harrowing scene in which families were asked to come to a big room where they were told individually about fatalities. She is told about her son’s death to screams and cries from other people being told similar news across the room.

Under pressure, action is taken against the train company, but a case of corporate manslaughter is thrown out because there is “no controlling mind.”

Fragmentation of the system had seen to that. It certainly wasn’t the engineers. They had been eclipsed by the marketing managers. Apparently Railtrack didn’t even have a space listed on its floor plan for engineers.

Profit had repeatedly been placed above safety and, as the policeman intent on pursuing the causes of the Southall crash discovers, the system gets better with each crash in covering up what happens. He may have rewritten the guide on how to deal with such events, but he is marginalised and pushed out of the service.

This is a riveting performance by a fine cast of an exceptionally important play. The scenario depicted could be that of any of those other so-called accidents, from Hillsborough to Grenfell.

Back in 2003 in a piece about the play, David Hare wrote, "all over the world this year, we are seeing the same phenomenon of electorates waiting, bewildered or furious for their own leaders to catch up with them, and trying to understand the mystery of their refusal."

Have things really changed?

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna