Panorama a sad shadow of its former self

Looking at Monday’s Panorama programme again was a dispiriting experience. It had all the faults of modern TV documentaries with much emphasis on personal stories and nice pictures but very little substance. The message was incredibly muddled and anyone not versed in the issues would have struggled to understand what on earth was going on. It failed to explain propely the background, merely allowing numerous passengers to moan rather, as they are wont to do.

The choice of heroes and villains was arbitrary. For example, the portrayal of Chiltern Rail as a beacon of private enteprise fail to mention the fact that it was only able to invest because these expansions were taken into account during franchise negotiations. I’m not decrying Adrian Shooter, who has done a great job, but merely pointing out it is more complicated than merely saying Network Rail was bad, Chiltern Rail good. David Higgins actually gave a good account of himself but what was he supposed to say when he was pressed about Reading, a project going smoothly but not finished. Of course it might overrun, but it might cost less than expected, too.

I suspect, too, that the woman from the Office of Rail Regulation, who did look completely daft, was somewhat set up. She should have stopped the interview, sorted out the issue and come back.

Then there were the punters who came across as pretty self-serving. Well, yes they may be paying quite a lot, but, say, the guy from Wellington to Birmingham is paying only £1,500 which works at at just £7 50 per day for a 60 mile journey. Not cheap, but not exorbitant, either, and far quicker than on the congested roads.

I am not saying that the railway does not deserve criticism. God knows, I doll out the brickbats myself at times. But just that there was no structure to the way this programme was written or presented.  The documentary tried to raise too many issues but did not have the time to examine any of them properly. There was no serious investigation of where the money goes – Rugby was an example already used by Dispatches and difficult to pin down – or a critique of the structure that results in the extra costs. It was just a shambolic mess making random points without a coherent structure. Rather like the railway itself, in fact.

  • Christian, I agree completely. If there was a message it was that the railway is overcrowded, too expensive, and unreliable. The railway can, generally, no longer be described as unreliable. But I don’t think it would even enter the mind of the producers to think about if the railway cut fares then trains would be even more crowded – and who would pay for the additional capacity?

    If the railway is SO bad, why are more and more people prepared to pay higher and higher fares to use it? (I’d quite like to know the answer to that one myself!)

  • Adam Gripton

    Couldn’t agree more Christian. I was expecting an exposé of where fare-payers’ and tax-payers’ money went that made the railways so expensive in some cases, but the only message seemed to be “we don’t know and they won’t tell us”. Useful!

  • Christian Wolmar

    Yes, so would I! I have a bet on with Nick Faith,another rail enthusiast journo, that the higher fares, the recession and overcrowding will result in fewer passenger numbers this year. I suspect I am going to be proved wrong… But who are all these people and why are they using the railways so much?

  • Could some of them be motorists who (a) can’t face the congested motorways any more, and/or (b) have discovered they can use their laptops on the train, which they can’t do while driving? Whoever they are, I’m certain there would be many more of them still, if the walk-on fares were not so high.

  • Christian Wolmar

    I do think you are right – that, more generally, new technology – mobiles, as well as laptops, Kindles and the like – is one reason for the upsurge. You are right that high fares are a deterrent, but if fuel prices rise – eg if the Iran stalemate turns into a conflict – usage may soar even further.

  • Ian Raymond

    Sadly, as you say Christian, this had the “faults of modern TV documentaries” – as with so much these days, dumbing down is evident. Easier to have quick soundbites and a pretence of drama than any real detailed investigative journalism. Whether it’s reporting on terrorism, carbon emissions, the economy or (of course) railways, it seems more about “having a rant” than looking at causes and possible solutions. As a consumer of this material, it is somewhat ironic that in turn I rant about the content – and I’m not sure what the solution is. When the current crop of more respected journalists fade away, will there be anyone left who can actually conduct a decent informed investigation for us punters?
    (Sorry, very philosophical – and sounds very negative!)
    Ian

  • Greg Tingey

    SOME sections of the railway are a lot less reliable than others.Recently I have had cause to observe running & performance on two close but vey different parts of what used to be BR
    The ex-LTS lines have only two tracks from Barking to Fenchurch Street, their rush-hour services have skip-stops to spread the load, and trains also using the intermediate loop via Ockendon ….
    ALl trains running within less than a minute of “time”, every time, with between 3 & 4 minute headways in the peak (!)Then there’s the ex SER services via Dartford.
    On four separate normal working days, not ONCE was there a complete or on-time service.
    Broken down trains, “points failures” cancellations, no trains running within 4 minutes of time … and the absolute calssic a supposedly 10-car from Hayes, which was a “5”, which ran through Waterloo East without stopping (caused hilarity on the platforms, anyway!)

    This level of gross incompetence has to be stopped, and soon.

  • But the motorways aren’t getting any more congested, and on my line from 3 Bridges you would never drive to London anyway. There seem to be more commuters when jobs are being cut and nobody is moving house.

    I think the only solution to overcrowding is to fight passengers off with sticks . .

  • Simon Moppett

    So you’re saying there is a story to be told about infrastructure costs and over-runs, but this programme did nothing to present a valid case for the prosocution?

  • JG

    If the Iran stalemate turns into a conflict it may result in slightly more than just increased fuel prices and rail usage!

  • Anonymous

    I watched the programme and thought it was pretty well directed towards the high cost of rail tickets and the exceptional cost of upgrading the existing infrastructure; with particular reference to Rugby and Reading stations.

    At any moment I expected CW to pop up and have a rant about the high cost of HS2; though thankfully Panorama decided not to give him another platform to air his personal views !

    Whilst the anti-HS2 brigade love to attack the high cost of HS2 and what they claim is the potential for cost over-runs, the reality is that upgrading the existing infrastructure has far more potential for cost over-run(s) than building on greenfields where the costs are more predictable. 

  • Chris Packham

    Would be interesting to know if passenger numbers continue rising on the few routes where there’s a decent bus/coach alternative. I’ve read that the north Kent commuter coaches are picking up business from South Eastern, but imagine it’s quite marginal. The really interesting case is Oxford-London, where trains remain very popular despite  high quality very frequent coaches. The coaches are slower, of course, but if you can work on the journey that may not be such a problem (the same argument that questions the value of HS2 time saved…). I’ve searched for information about the Oxford-London rail/coach market share without success. Is coach growing at rail’s expense, is the overall market growing, providing growth for both? Anyone know? 

  • Chris Packham

    Would be interesting to know if passenger numbers continue rising on the few routes where there’s a decent bus/coach alternative. I’ve read that the north Kent commuter coaches are picking up business from South Eastern, but imagine it’s quite marginal. The really interesting case is Oxford-London, where trains remain very popular despite  high quality very frequent coaches. The coaches are slower, of course, but if you can work on the journey that may not be such a problem (the same argument that questions the value of HS2 time saved…). I’ve searched for information about the Oxford-London rail/coach market share without success. Is coach growing at rail’s expense, is the overall market growing, providing growth for both? Anyone know? 

  • Paul Holt

    Nobody’s mentioned the time-lapse sequence, 23 minutes in, of a bridge dismantled and replaced seemingly in one night.   Watch it again on iPlayer!

  • Agree about the poor quality of that edition of “Panorama” – told us nothing we did not know already.
    But the fact that they could have done so much better was well illustrated by the following weeks edition about Lord Ashcroft, which to my mind was brave, and could not be faulted.

  • Gabriel Oaks

    The BBC lost the plot when it started referring to railway stations as train stations…… 

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