This is no way to run our railways
After timetable chaos and fare hike, MPs’ blunt verdict:
A DAMNING report on the summer timetable shambles has laid bare the dysfunctional chaos of Britain’s railways.
Decision-making was ‘ not fit for purpose’ and there was a ‘collective, system-wide failure’, said MPs.
There was an ‘ extraordinary complacency’ among government officials, rail bosses and regulators about ‘protecting the interests of passengers’, they added.
Transport committee chairman Lilian Greenwood said the news last week of an average 3.1 per cent rise in fares added ‘insult to passengers’ injury’.
Chris Grayling was also in the firing line over the delays and cancellations to thousands of services nationwide as the industry buckled under the biggest change to schedules introduced in May.
The MPs said the Transport Secretary was ultimately responsible for the railways and should stop ducking the blame.
He should ‘have been more proactive’, they added. But as problems mounted, he had insisted: ‘I don’t run the railways.’ Mr Grayling had blamed rail bosses, particularly at infrastructure firm Network Rail, for claiming they were ready for the changes.
The committee concluded the Transport Secretary ‘is responsible for the structure of the system. Some of the problems arose from the structure of the railways. It is therefore not reasonable for the Secretary of State to absolve himself of all responsibility’.
The cross-party committee also blamed the ‘ fragmented’ nature of the industry for the disruption. In Britain’s ‘ astonishing’ complex system, private companies compete on rail infrastructure which is owned and run by the state, it said.
The MPs highlighted ‘ inadequate’ governance and decisionmaking overseen by Mr Grayling and his department. ‘Lines of accountability failed, were not sufficiently clear or simply did not exist,’ they said.
Mrs Greenwood added: ‘It is extraordinary and totally unacceptable no-one took charge of the situation and acted to avert the May timetabling crisis.
‘Around one in five passengers experienced intensely inconven- Ordeal: Passengers on a crowded platform in London trying to get to work on time ient and costly disruption to their daily lives.
‘ There was extraordinary complacency about protecting the interests of passengers, who were very badly let down.’
The 46,300 timetable changes affecting almost half of services were meant to lead to more trains and reliable travel.
But the overhaul unravelled as operators did not have enough time to make sure trains were in the right place and to train up drivers for new routes.
Over- running engineering work by Network Rail was the key reason the timetable was implemented late in the North of England, said the report. But delays in crucial decisions on how to phase in changes on Thameslink by Network Rail and Mr Grayling were to blame in the South, it added.
The committee said statistics ‘cannot do justice to the severe effect on people’s lives’ as they had to pay for taxis and extra childcare. Passengers also suffered anxiety about getting to and from work while pupils were late for school.
Labour, which wants the railways to be renationalised, backed the report. Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: ‘Chris Grayling could have done more and should take greater responsibility.’ He also blamed the complex system for making it ‘so easy for senior figures to pass the buck’.
A Department for Transport spokesman said an industry review will ‘put passengers first, with reforms from 2020’.
Robert Nisbet, for the Rail Delivery Group, said a team has been set up to ensure timetable changes are smooth, including those due next weekend.
CoMMUTERS can be forgiven for reacting with loud groans to promises of new timetables with hundreds of extra rail services from next Monday. They remember all too well what happened last time they were changed, six months ago.
The result was chaos on Thameslink and Northern Rail — and thousands of passengers incandescent as hundreds of trains were cancelled every day for weeks after the rail companies realised they didn’t have enough drivers for the extra trains.
Things are not looking too good for next week, either. A damning interim report into the last fiasco by the office of Rail and Road concludes that similar disruption could happen again.
If it isn’t timetable changes causing havoc, it’s engineering work. Two weeks ago, thousands of commuters found themselves stranded in the Home Counties on a Monday morning, unable to get to work in London as weekend engineering work on lines into Waterloo station overran.
Then there is overcrowding. In August it was revealed that on Britain’s most overcrowded commuter service, from Uckfield in East Sussex to Victoria, 267 passengers typically try to squeeze into a twocoach train designed to carry 107 people. Why couldn’t they find an extra set of carriages?
Meanwhile, angry commuters learnt last week that they must pay an average of 3.1 per cent extra for their season tickets from January — and that’s regulated fares. As for the 55 per cent of fares that are unregulated, including fully flexible ‘anytime’ fares, train companies are free to exploit their monopolies to jack up prices to whatever level they like.
Recently, I had to take an early morning train from Ely in Cambridgeshire to Birmingham and was quoted a fare of £138.40 return. I looked up what I’d paid for the same trip in 2000, a few years after privatisation. It was £24.70.
It is an endless cycle of misery: rising fares, fewer reliable trains and a struggle to find a seat. While the rail companies make fat profits, ordinary people trying to get to work are ripped off.
During the strike on Southern Railway, some had to give up their jobs as they were unable to get to work on time. It is an outrageous way to run a public service.
I am no friend of the nationalised industries of the Seventies and have no rosy memories of British Rail, for which I briefly worked as a trainee engineer in the 1980s. The trains I travelled on back then were slow and dirty, even if I do remember them being a little more reliable than today’s services.
Another thing people tend to forget is how BR reacted to overcrowded trains. Rather than laying on extra carriages, it used to miss out stops and use other ways to discourage passengers from travelling.
In any case, renationalising the railways would be horrifically expensive. While the franchises could simply be allowed to expire, the taxpayer would have to buy the rolling stock, which would mean stumping up £9.3 billion — and that’s just for new trains ordered to be delivered by 2020.
But why can’t the Government reform the dreadful franchising system to make sure long-suffering passengers have a proper choice and fares are sensibly regulated?
In July, it was announced that the franchise for South Western Trains, which operates services out of London Waterloo, is to be renegotiated, just 11 months after it was awarded to a consortium of First Group and the Hong Kong metro operator, MTR.
on that occasion, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling promised a ‘revolution’, with extra trains and more seats. But the timetable changes promised for this month have been cancelled indefinitely.
Then there is the notorious East Coast Main Line. Three times in the past dozen years, the rail company operating the line has run into financial problems and had its franchise withdrawn. This year, Virgin and Stagecoach were replaced by London North Eastern Railway, a state-owned operator, after failing to pay the £3 billion premium they had promised to the Government.
Still the transport secretary insists the franchise must be put out to tender again. Surely, he knows what will happen. Along will come another private operator that overbids, overestimates the number of passengers who will use its trains, then collapses in a heap or begs to be bailed out.
When rail privatisation began in 1995, I was all in favour. Instead of being forced to travel on trains run by a monopoly, passengers would have a choice of operators and competition would reduce the cost of rail fares — or so I thought. I assumed the strikes would stop and taxpayers would no longer be forced to subsidise the railways.
None of these things has been achieved. Most of the limited competition created at the time of privatisation has been lost as franchises have been amalgamated and individual train companies have been given the exclusive right to operate across parallel lines, when they should be made to go buffer-to-buffer with rivals.
Why on earth was Virgin awarded the franchise to run intercity trains up the East coast when it was already running trains on the West coast?
It appears that rail companies have, predictably enough, exploited their monopolies ruthlessly. Fares have risen by a quarter in real terms since privatisation. Since 1995, an open day return from London to Manchester has more than trebled to £338.
In no other industry would such practices be tolerated. Yet rail companies seem to be free to raise fares as much as they like. If we can’t have competition on every line, then ordinary turn-up-and-go fares should be set by the Government.
As for the rail unions, they are as bolshie as ever. The only difference is that privatised rail companies seem keener to cave in to their demands.
Last year, Southern Rail drivers only called off their strike once their annual pay was boosted to £75,000. Rail companies have simply rolled over in the face of union demands, then relied on the Government to bail them out.
Remarkably, subsidies paid to the rail industry have more than doubled in real terms since privatisation, growing from £ 900 million in 1995 (£1.7 billion in today’s money) to £4.2 billion in 2016-17.
Worst of all, the Government’s failure to deal properly with the railways is playing into Jeremy Corbyn’s hands. His aim of renationalising the railways is popular even with Tory voters — according to YouGov they are split 52 to 39 per cent in favour.
Surely, ministers can see that London’s commuterland is full of marginal seats that voted for Margaret Thatcher, then Tony Blair, and have switched tentatively back to the Tories.
Places such as Harlow, Watford and Crawley are home to aspirational voters who want to work hard and reap the rewards for that. But they must be able to get to work.
Yet, instead of addressing the problems with commuter services, the Government is obsessed with the ludicrously expensive vanity project that is HS2. While it boasts of building the fastest railway in Europe, it neglects those commuters who lost their jobs because they couldn’t get to work.
The Tories need to start looking after commuters — or risk losing their votes, and with them their grip on Downing Street. And that really would be a one-way ticket to disaster.