Why is it that the railways attract so much criticism? There was an extraordinary article in the Mail on Sunday on May 13 which revealed that prison labour had been used to help relay tracks on part of the West Coast Main Line. The MoS was incensed about the risk to passengers because of what it called ‘a chain gang’ repairing the track. The unions, for their part, weighed in arguing that it was cheap labour undercutting their members, many of whom were out of work (oh yeah, when more is being spent on the railways than ever before?).
In fact, the prisoners were men destined to be released soon and it was part of a programme to help them reintegrate back into society. Network Rail pointed out that it was not safety critical work, but even that seemed a bit unnecessarily defensive. Even if the work were safety critical, it would be supervised and checked, and in any case, why should these people want to sabotage the railway, probably a much more serious offence than they were banged up for in the first place.
All in all, it seemed a feeble story that was an excuse to knock the railway yet again. This is not a new phenomenon. One of the recurring themes of my new book, Fire and Steam, which is due to be published in September – and whose front cover is now on the website in the books section – is the constant hostility to the railway from both passengers and governments. The railways, stretching as far back as the 18 40s, have always been an Aunt Sally, the butt of everything from music hall jokes to editorials in The Times. At a recent conference, one of the delegates suggested to me that it is because the railways are treated like a utility; people just expect them to work, and therefore when they don’t, they attract vehement criticism.
That may be part of the reason. I think there are several others, such as the fact that news editors, who control what goes in the paper, often commute into work in crowded trains on the old Southern network. Moreover, half of people never use trains at all and they resent subsidy going into them; and even possibly, they may feel a tinge of guilt over not using them so feel that any criticism of the railways reduces their responsibility – ‘the trains are crap, so that’s why I don’t use them’.
I wonder, too, if the hostility is not stimulated by the dominance of the transport agenda by the motoring lobby and its supporters, and their friends in the media.
But it is not all down to the Jeremy Clarksons of this world. The rail scores an awful lot of own goals. I tipped off a newspaper recently to a story where a stroppy guard on a half empty train from Cornwall had tried to get a group of musicians to pay for a ticket for their cellos. The Guardian recently covered the case of a woman who had got on a train further down the line than her ticket specified – in other words cutting part of her journey – and yet the train operator, GNER, charged her and her family for whole new tickets. With that sort of behaviour, no wonder the railways attract opprobrium.
Moreover, unlike the motor industry with the RAC and other organisations, the railway does not have a proper lobbying outfit to push its case tirelessly at all times. Yet, again as my book shows, the Southern Railway in the 1920s managed to change local public opinion thanks to efficient lobbying – and an improvement in services.
This will be my last online column – I will, instead, be joining the blogosphere. I have some misgivings about this, because there are already so many blogs out there but I think the format will be more accessible and readable for visitors to my site and allow more interaction as it will be possible to post comments. Moreover, there are not many transport and rail blogs, and I hope that this one will prove interesting to lots of people.