Philip Haigh

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

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Philip Haigh

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.

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