The predictable New Year fare rises row caused further adverse publicity for the industry. PHILIP HAIGH considers what the railway can do to boost its public image
How to boost the railway’s image.
AT least the unfortunate with the ‘kick me’ sign attached to his trouser seat didn’t pin it there himself. I rather think the railway pinned its own for the kicking it received over the New Year, as the annual fare rises took effect just as commuters returned to work after Christmas.
This year’s triumph of heat over light was made warmer by last May’s abject failures to deliver promised improvements to Thameslink and Northern services, with the former the fault of tardy decisions from the Department for Transport and the latter Network Rail’s delayed electrification programme.
I can see some merit in claims that fares should have been held stable to compensate passengers for May’s meltdown, but that would be to overlook the compensation already offered.
I have less truck with Labour’s outrage that a Conservative government should increase fares, because the Tories are merely continuing a policy instigated when Labour was in power.
And it’s rather rich for Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to have claimed last year that he doesn’t run the railways, and then issue a press release on January 2 headlined “Grayling slashes rail fares for a generation of rail passengers”.
Nor can I lend credence to rail union calls for fares (and profit) restraint, unless there’s a corresponding admission that wage restraint is also needed if costs are not to spiral ever upwards (staff costs represent around a quarter of operator costs).
There’s a strange contradiction in complaints that rail fares are too expensive to allow people to travel, but trains are too crowded. It’s true that season tickets come with hefty price tags, but they permit cheap travel per journey when compared with walk-on tickets.
Over recent years, many millions of pounds have been spent on making trains longer to satisfy these commuters on their morning journeys, and much of this extra and expensive capacity isn’t needed during the rest of the day.
There’s also a contradiction in calls to cut revenue and increase investment. Were fares to be frozen then higher bills would land at the taxpayers’ feet.
It’s right that taxpayers do foot some of rail’s bills, because the network benefits even those who don’t use it. But it’s odd that rail unions, for example, should call for passengers to receive more subsidy, because rail users generally earn more than (for example) bus passengers whose fare rises go unnoticed.
What is clear is that train operators and Network Rail need 2019 to be vastly better than 2018. Trains and timetables promised for last year need to arrive.
Various television vox pops followed a simple theme of rising fares but no service improvements. One woman stood in front of Haymarket station to recite this line, seemingly oblivious to the new and longer electric trains running to her daily destination of Glasgow. Perhaps she was oblivious? After all, for many people a train is just a train.
I fear she might unwittingly be right, because
ScotRail’s December timetable introduction is not going to plan. It started well, as I found on December 10 ( RAIL 868), but since then it has been plagued by short-notice cancellations, as it’s become apparent that the company hasn’t trained sufficient crews for its new services.
This led to a remedial plan notice from Transport Scotland on Christmas Eve, demanding a recovery plan. The plan follows ScotRail breaching cancellation thresholds before the new timetable started - which suggests it’s not employing enough drivers and guards - but anticipated further breaches, particularly on services from Edinburgh into Fife.
The company’s problem also stems from Hitachi’s late delivery of Class 385s and Wabtec’s late delivery of refurbished High Speed Trains fitted with power-operated doors.
To cope without sufficient Class 385s ScotRail drafted north Class 365s, which allowed it to switch Edinburgh-Falkirk High-Glasgow services to electric trains but came with a need to train crews on this interim class. These ‘365s’ now form a temporary fleet for Stirling services while ScotRail awaits further ‘385’ deliveries. When Wabtec’s failure became clear, ScotRail had to start another training programme - this time for guards to cope with slam-door HSTs.
As an aside, had ScotRail not agreed a late request from Network Rail to close the line through Stirling for a week in October, it’s very doubtful whether the planned electric service to Dunblane and Alloa from Edinburgh and Glasgow would have started on time.
Broadly, ScotRail has faced double the training bill it expected - and this at a time when it didn’t really have enough crews for current services, let alone releasing them to prepare for new ones. Asking crews to work extra turns as overtime would have helped preparations, but the RMT union imposed a ban which it only removed when ScotRail promised higher payments.
There are lessons from Scotland for the rest of the railway as it plans 2019’s deliveries. The first has already been aired by the Office of Rail and Road in its report into last May’s problems, and that is that bad news must not be kept hidden. Managers must take an active interest in what’s going on and not simply accept assurances that all is running to plan.
A second is that an industry with as many moving parts as the railway will never run entirely smoothly. Infrastructure upgrades may be late. Train deliveries may be late. Timetables, crew rosters and train diagrams may work on paper but not in practice.
A third is that train operators must stop relying on poaching train crew from other operators for all the extra services they’re promising.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is to realise the harm that comes from consistently overpromising and under-delivering. Passengers have been promised improvements for too long to believe any of them, even when they arrive.
It might be disappointing that enhancement projects have been stripped from the five-year Control Period that starts in April, but it’s a blessing in disguise. Each proposal will be treated on its merits. This gives a chance to calmly consider which can be realistically delivered from within the railway’s current skills and resources.
It’s time to take a break from enhancements, and concentrate on running today’s network without adding more promises of extra trains or new services. From boardroom to ballast, people need a break. And passengers and freight shippers need a railway that boringly delivers what it says.
Happy New Year!
ScotRail 385012 stands at Edinburgh Waverley on November 21 2018, with a train for Dunbar. The introduction of new electric trains and electrification has not stopped fares criticism north of the border.