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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page -

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

RMT in­sists.

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.