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Railroad play seems to be right on time

'The Permanent Way,' which asserts that trains in Britain symbolize a 'national breakdown,' taps a vein of anger.

March 17, 2004|Glenn Frankel | Washington Post

LONDON — Once upon a time, and not so long ago, the British loved their trains.

This is, after all, the country where the railroad was invented and where the first public railway was opened in 1825. Railroads were both a product and emblem of the industrial revolution that made Britain the world's most successful nation. Train stations were huge steel temples for worshiping both God and Mammon. Paddington Bear, Thomas the Tank Engine and films like "Brief Encounter" and "The Ladykillers" all were popular tributes to the power and the glory that was the British railway system.

That was then. These days, Britain's railroads epitomize a nation in constant fear of decline. They're slow, costly and constantly late, or so they seem to many of their customers, especially compared with their zippy counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

As one character in David Hare's new play, "The Permanent Way," puts it: "The railways are a symbol. What are they a symbol of? Of national breakdown, that's what, of everything that's wrong with the country, so-called."

"The Permanent Way," a docudrama about the truth and consequences of the public sell-off of the railroads over the last decade, has been playing to sold-out houses since it opened in January here at the National Theatre. In theory, it should be dry and tedious -- "an incredibly boring subject," as one character puts it. But its real theme is the immorality of modern British politics, and it has tapped a deep vein of anger and indignation.

Hare's thesis is simple and searing: In its rush to unload the public railway system, the Conservative government of former Prime Minister John Major sold off a national treasure at a bargain-basement price, creating a nightmarishly complex system that has proved more expensive, less efficient and less safe than its predecessor. And Hare accuses the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party of lacking the guts and good sense to return the system to public control.

It's a lot to chew on for a piece of theater, but Hare weaves together accounts from government and railway officials, investment bankers, passengers and victims of recent derailments to dramatize his point. The dialogue is based on interviews he and his actors conducted. The result is a passionate and relentless assault.

Between 1979 and 1997 Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher and her successor, Major, sold off two-thirds of Britain's state-owned industries, raising some $100 billion for the treasury. As recounted in journalist Ian Jack's book "The Crash That Stopped Britain," Thatcher, the apostle of free-market economics, pledged to "roll back the frontiers of the state," arguing that the market could provide better services at a lower price. In the process, she helped modernize and remake Britain. Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called it "selling the family silver."

British Rail, the crown jewel among public services, was one of the last to go. But in 1994 the government dismantled it and sold off the balkanized pieces, creating 25 train operating companies, each using trains owned by three other companies operating on infrastructure -- tracks and stations -- owned by yet another firm. It was called "vertical separation," and it made immediate, large profits for the government and the executives and shareholders in the new companies, as well as for the investment bankers who brokered the deal. But from the start, critics said it was doomed to fail passengers.

The railways got smaller -- Jack says the number of employees fell to 92,000 from 159,000 over a five-year period while the number involved in inspecting and maintaining the track and other infrastructure fell by half. Meanwhile, passenger-rail use actually grew by 30%. The result, according to Jack, whose small book is one of Hare's main sources, was congestion, chaos and, eventually, a string of fatal accidents because, Hare and Jack contend, no one took responsibility for safety.

In America, Hare is perhaps best known as the Oscar-nominated screenplay writer of "The Hours." Back home in Britain he is famous for a string of politically provocative dramas that have dissected the Thatcher government, the Church of England, the media and other modern bogeymen.

In the case of "The Permanent Way," defenders of the railway privatization contend Hare's thesis is misleading, that given the large and unpredicted rise in railway use, British trains have coped rather well, and that there have actually been fewer fatal accidents.

"David Hare has written a polemic attacking privatization," Adrian Lyons, director general of the Railway Forum, an industry-sponsored group, said in a statement.

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