There was genuine dismay in parts of the North-East when Auf Wiedersehen, Pet re-emerged from TV oblivion in 2002.

Not because of Jimmy Nail’s singing (second only to Dennis Waterman’s) or the infliction of Tim Spall’s pantomime Brummie accent.

No, it was the apparent demise of Middlesbrough’s landmark Transporter Bridge which the rogue builders took apart for shipment to Arizona where it served to connect a tribe of Native Americans with a casino across the canyon.

Rarely has the willing suspension of disbelief proved quite so taxing. More persuasive though were the CGI techniques that showed the bridge in various states of dismantlement.

Demolition is a tricky business; in some respects even more so than assembly.

Explosives and hydraulic breakers find favour today – soulless substitutes for the showmanship of Fred Dibnah who felled mill chimneys by fire, dropping them onto postage stamps with little regard for his own safety.

Oz, played by Nail, and his sidekicks fictitiously followed an intricate dismantling plan on the Transporter Bridge, taking its 2,600 tonnes of steelwork apart rivet by rivet, ensuring that it was always in balance and thus didn’t fall in on itself.

Though a wrecking ball might feel more appropriate, that latter approach could start to relieve the pressure imposed by the railway’s onerous regulatory structure built over many years from small components.

During November, the Red Tape Challenge – a government initiative that aims to “crack down” on unnecessary directives – turned its attention to the rail sector, seeking views on almost 200 regulations that have a bearing on it.

Do they, it asked, provide vital protection or are they ill-conceived and badly implemented?

It says much about today’s processes that many of these regulations have not been despatched as a matter of routine. There’s no shortage of agencies seeking to thicken the bureaucratic soup; fewer have a focus on reducing it.

There are, for example, regulations in force covering closures on lines which no longer exist, as well as various exemption orders that have already expired. Why have these not been automatically eradicated?

Lessening the cost burden

The Red Tape Challenge is a coalition brainchild, launched by David Cameron back in April. It gives members of the public “a chance to have their say on more than 21,000 regulations that affect their everyday lives.”

These fit within six themes covering employment law, pensions, equality, the environment, company law, and health and safety.

Whilst recognising that regulations play a vital part in the legislative framework that underpins rail operations – “effective and efficient regulation can reduce administrative burdens” according to the campaign’s website – it asserts that poorly thought out or badly implemented directives can impose unnecessary costs on the industry.

Few would argue with that. But reaching an informed judgement on the need of any single regulation surely demands an understanding of what led to its implementation. Who’s best placed to do that?

The Department for Transport continues to explore how it can simplify its prescription of rail outcomes and services – a painfully slow business it seems – and how best to take forward Sir Roy McNulty’s Rail Value for Money Study.

Cutting costs is the goal, alongside innovative means of delivery and a more efficient network. This will demand a loosening of regulation – keeping its burden to a minimum whilst ensuring enforcement is both effective and fair.

All encompassing

It’s worth scrolling through the list of regulations to help understand just how far they reach. Amongst them are the Railways (Ashford) (Exemptions) Order 1998 which frees parts of Kent’s network from certain statutory requirements when closures are proposed, whilst the Railways Act 1993 (Consequential Modifications) (No.5) Order 1996 makes amendments to legislation covering bridges as a result of rail privatisation.

Then there’s the Locomotives etc Regulations 1906 (Metrication) Regulations 1981, amending the Locomotives & Wagons (Used on Lines and Sidings) Regulations 1906 by substituting metric measurements for their imperial equivalents, and not forgetting the Railtrack plc (Rateable Value) (Wales) Order 2000 (W.22) which prescribes the rateable value of Railtrack’s hereditament in a central list from the financial year 2000/1.

Yes, there are a lot of regulations and it’s easy to make a mockery of them. Very easy in fact. But how much of a problem are they, gathering dust on shelves?

Whilst many restrain strategic decision making, very few have a practical impact on the day-to-day running of the railway, making the Red Tape Challenge a red herring in some respects.

It’s the lower level stuff that can be really stifling: prescriptive rules and standards stuck in the last century, tick-box bureaucratic requirements, a lethargic product acceptance process that strives for ‘perfect’ to the detriment of ‘better’.

None of it keeps pace with today’s technological opportunities (to be fair, how could it?), not enough of it empowers competent people to exercise professional judgement, and too much of it is disproportionate to the risk it seeks to control.

Granular examples

The case for deforesting spent regulations is self-evident – it should happen as a matter of course. Some projects plant three trees for every one that’s felled; perhaps the railway could withdraw three rules for every new one written? But this is where risk aversion makes its presence felt.

Despite a supposed decluttering exercise, RSSB’s latest Rule Book still requires a COSS to place a red flag/light on the approach to his site of work when taking a line blockage.

The roots of this instruction go back years, predating proper high-vis clothing by a considerable distance.

Today, gangs of men bedecked in luminous orange command the attention of drivers by their very presence and yet their last line of defence from a wayward train – which by then has passed the protecting signal at danger and possibly exploded three dets – is a saggy cloth in the four-foot. Have you tried standing a red flag up in ballast without first turning off gravity?

And at the behest of RAIB, the industry felt obliged to invest time and effort contriving a definition for the term ‘approaching train’ (yes, you read it right), presumably to benefit those who don’t understand the concept of running rails.

Five bullet points poured forth for trackworkers to forget. There is a cultural focus on the written word – for many it’s a comfort blanket, for others an auditing tool.

Innovation and efficiency will only be unleashed when that mindset changes and the institutional resistance to less/fewer eases.

Solid foundations?

Post McNulty, there is a collective acceptance that doing nothing is not an option.

“An expanding railway also has to be an efficient railway”, insists Graham Smith, Secretary of the new Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

“Many of the barriers to that greater efficiency can be found in the bureaucracy, red tape and regulations that delay, or even prevent, improvements to Britain’s railways.”

Arranging the removal of those barriers will be a key role for the RDG, testing its mettle and leadership credentials.

And what of the Red Tape Challenge? The public response to its rail sector focus was patchy, perhaps reflecting the broader disengagement with politics.

Many of the comments spoke in defence of pension regulation: “the provisions are sacrosanct” said one, “I would take to the barricades to defend them.”

Others supported the regulatory status quo. “The key issue is not how many regulations there are or what they cover but how they are interpreted by the regulatory authority.”

Another concluded that “the present rail safety regime is effective and fit for purpose, and little or no public benefit would arise from chopping away chunks of the legal structures which support and guide it.”

On the whole, probably not what was expected or hoped for.

A cynic might suggest that the campaign is little more than window dressing, allowing government to claim that it has listened and acted when a raft of defunct regulations are consigned to the bin.

Will the Disability Discrimination Act – which inflates the cost of stations and rolling stock – disappear? Might the Great Crested Newt find itself more exposed? Unlikely.

But the Red Tape Challenge does have symbolic importance – formally conceding that regulation now reaches too deep and urging agencies to loosen its straitjacket.

Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge still offers flights across the Tees aboard its gondola, defying the virtual efforts of the Auf Wiedersehen gang to bring it down.

Erected in just two years, it survived to celebrate its centenary last October. The railway’s regulatory structure – whilst equally elaborate – cannot afford to prove quite so durable.