Complaints, chaos and a rail omnishambles
Britain’s network is struggling to cope as margins dry up, new timetables create delays and strikes blight the sector. Oliver Gill examines how it can get back on track
Chaos was unfolding at Woking train station shortly after seven o’clock on a cold mid-october Wednesday morning. Halfway through a five-day strike by train guards, signalling faults had crippled one of the busiest lines into London. Tempers flared among angry commuters as the announcer bellowed: “don’t travel today.”
“This is my 21st year of doing this and I’ve never seen it this bad,” vented one commuter. “Back in the old slam-door days in the latenineties it ran smoother than this. Even during the strikes – and you could get a seat. It must be costing people thousands, I saw a group of builders who are on a day rate just turn around and leave.”
Staff then shut the station, refusing access to the platforms. Commuters trudged off, some climbing into their cars to do battle with London traffic; others to pen emails explaining why they wouldn’t be in until much later that day – if at all.
It is an omnishambles that is replicated in one form or other across the length and breadth of the country on an almost daily basis.
Last week, Northern rail announced that more than 70pc of Saturday services will be cancelled in December. Strikes across the sprawling network will hit those hoping to attend football matches, concerts or Christmas markets across Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield.
Railway misery has crept up on the country over the last decade. Critically, wafer-thin margins are drying up. Britain’s transport operators are questioning whether rail is the right place to be, and the profit squeeze has sparked a string of embarrassing bailouts from overseas governments whose state-backed operators proliferate in Britain’s train industry, but there is fierce debate about who is to blame.
“We [the train companies] have been complicit in a government lie that the industry is privatised, it is not,” explains a senior manager at one of the country’s biggest rail operators.
In charge of 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges and tunnels, signals and level crossings, state-owned Network Rail is the owner of the country’s rail infrastructure. It rose from the ashes of Railtrack – the former FTSE 100 company that was formed as part of British Rail’s privatisation. Railtrack collapsed following the Hatfield rail tragedy in 2000 that claimed the lives of four people and injured many more.
Today, Network Rail is the linchpin of Britain’s railways. Martin Fleetwood, a rail specialist with law firm Addleshaw Goddard, suggests it does well to avoid being a target of customer contempt. The driving force behind poor passenger services, is “a lack of co-ordination between the franchise operators and Network Rail”, he said. “The impression is that it seems to be taking much longer to recover from any major delays – the South Western problem on Nov 19 being a case in point. While the overrunning engineering works were cleared in the morning, there were still significant problems after the evening peak
despite the time available to move stock and drivers during the day time.”
The tide could be turning against Network Rail, however. Last week, regulator the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) warned that, as of next April, Network Rail bosses risk losing their bonuses if it does not pull its socks up. Also, the award of a CBE to ex-boss Mark Carne was criticised after punctuality hit a 15-year low.
Sources at the company, however, bemoan the fact that the goalposts are constantly moved. The window to perform engineering works has shrunk by a 25pc over the last five years, it is claimed. “We’re having to come up with ever more innovative ways to keep our infrastructure
‘The vast majority of decisions that really impact passengers are made by government’
healthy but it’s a daily challenge and while failures are at historically low levels, train performance is suffering as any failure, on a congested network, causes many more knock-on delays than previously – the M25 effect,” one source said.
Behind closed doors, rail operators fume at what they perceive as the incompetence of the Department for Transport (DFT). Of course, such views are rarely voiced publicly given it is the DFT that decides on the railway’s winners and losers.
“The vast majority of decisions that really impact passengers are made by government.
“Fares are largely controlled by government, fares are complex because government has done nothing to modernise them. Fares are expensive because government has forced up prices to reduce costs to taxpayers,” an insider said.
Indeed, Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, has doggedly attempted to shift the burden of the railways from the taxpayer to the user – forgetting that they are usually one and the same thing.
In 2011, some 57pc of Britain’s rail costs were funded by users, according to trade body the Rail Delivery Group. By 2016, this had grown to 70pc.
Grayling’s rail funding paradox is questioned by the authors of a recent report for the Independent Transport Commission. Rail passenger growth has more than doubled since privatisation, while Britain’s population has risen by 15pc over the same period. Trains have played an important role in Britain’s transformation into a service sector powerhouse by ferrying workers into urban areas – whether that be the City of London, Reading or Manchester.
Dr Matthew Niblett, a director at the Independent Transport Commission (ITC), says: “Rail travel brings many external benefits to wider society by taking travellers off our roads, thereby reducing road congestion, alleviating poor urban air quality and reducing the need for parking in city centres. Therefore, there is a robust case that some degree of public subsidy is justified to account for these benefits.”
Industrial action on the railways is hardly a new phenomenon. But in recent years, passengers have been left baffled by one particular spat that has caused commuting misery: who opens and closes train carriage doors.
For the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, handing “chief door opening responsibility” to the train driver puts guards on a slippery slope towards the employment scrapheap. Passenger safety is also being put at risk, the
But franchise agreements mandate that train companies take on new trains, which are made so that it is the driver, not the guard, that operates the doors. This means that even if the train companies were to cave in to all the union demands; guards would still be left impotent, with no button to press; no physical ability to control the doors.
What complicates matters, according to one former transport minister, is that the RMT is much more split than it has been in the past.
Following the death of Bob Crow in 2014, his second in command – Mick Cash – was thrust into the top job.
Crow, the MP says, drove a hard bargain but was able to control the RMT’S more militant sections. In contrast, Cash lacks clout, it is claimed.
Even when deals are agreed between warring factions, there is no certainty the RMT will get behind them with one voice.
Meanwhile, the rail industry is awash with franchise agreements that are “clearly undeliverable”, industry sources point out. This was brought sharply into focus earlier this year when Virgin Trains handed the East Coast main line back to the government. More could be heading in the same direction. Firstgroup has written down the value of the Transpennine Express franchise by more than £100m. South Western, also run by the FTSE 250 company, is struggling because of a complex clause linking Central London employment figures to payments to the DFT.
The mechanism, Investec analyst Alex Paterson wrote in midnovember,” has the potential to significantly impact profitability”.
Paterson continued: “We are confident that, even without that uncertainty, South Western Railway will continue to generate substantial losses.” A similar clause necessitated an £80m bailout from the Dutch government on Greater Anglia earlier this year. Meanwhile, Northern, run by German behemoth Deutsche Bahn, wants to renegotiate terms after its finances were hurt by May’s bungled timetable overhaul and waves of strikes.
Rail operators will continue to attract most of the blame for the problems on the train network. They are effectively gagged from defending themselves; publicly attacking government – and by extension Network Rail – could risk future work as franchises come up for tender.
Many of the problems are outside of their control; but transport giants, whether from the UK or abroad, sign up to these terms when they take on the contracts. They could say “no” or bid on different financial terms.
Network Rail and the DFT are awash with red tape; but again, bidders know what they are in for before throwing their hats into the ring. Perhaps everyone could take some blame for the sorry state of Britain’s railways.
‘This is my 21st year of doing this and I’ve never seen it this bad. Back in the old slamdoor days in the latenineties it ran smoother than this’
Commuters trying to get home from Waterloo station, left; engineering work overruns have blighted the system, right; a protester complains about rising fares, below right