While at the opening of the new inspirational King’s Cross station entrance, I mused about the image of the railway in 21st century Britain. Here was a fantastic innovatory scheme next to the renovated St Pancras, another genuinely world class piece of architecture and refurbishment, costing together some £1.4bn and demonstrating that the industry is going through a period of self-confidence that was almost entirely absence in the 20th century. Yet the railway seems to be the butt of more criticism than almost any other industry in the media which offers very little understanding of the way it has transformed itself into a modern part of the infrastructure.
This is encapsulated in recent media coverage. There have been two quite dreadful TV programmes recently, followed by a highly critical Which? survey, all of which lacked balance and context. The Panorama programme in January on the railways was the worst. It was a half hour rehash of various whinges from passengers, with very little context or appreciation of wider issues. Even the comments on the BBC website are almost unanimously negative. There was no insight and nothing that was new or revealing.
Similarly, Confessions from the Underground on Channel 4 in February was equally disappointing. It was a series of complaints from staff performed by actors without London Underground being allowed to respond effectively. There were lots of safety scares and warnings, but no representation of the fantastic safety record of the system for nearly 150 years, or a recognition of the huge scale of the upgrading of the Underground that has been taking place over the past decade.
It is the Which? survey, however, that tipped me over the edge and made me want to counter all this garbage with a celebratory piece on how well the railways have been doing. The survey suggested that for even the best performing company, Virgin, the overall customer satisfaction score was just 64 per cent, and the lowest was Southeastern with just 40. This suggested a much higher rate of dissatisfaction than in the National Passenger Survey carried out annually by Passenger Focus where the satisfaction ratings for the train operators varied last year between 72 and 95 per cent.
It actually is just down to the scoring system for the survey. I checked out the methodology with Which? survey and the researcher explained that survey used the normal method of asking for responses in five categories ranging from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. However, these have been weighted in such a way that very satisfied scores 16 and very dissatisfied scores 1. Therefore (bear with me, it’s worth it!) if 100 respondents were divided equally between the five categories, the overall score would not be, as expected, 50 per cent, but, rather, 31 per cent. It is, therefore, weighted in such a way as to be very difficult to get a high score, or to put it bluntly, to paint a gloomy picture of the railway. Even if say, responses were equally divided between the two ‘satisfied’ categories the score would be only 75 per cent! In other words, Which? was ensuring that it had its ‘railways are cr*p’ headline before the survey was undertaken.
OK confession time, as I can hear readers murmur, what about you Wolmar?. Of course at times guilty of being critical myself. But that’s because my experience of the industry makes me all too aware of its deficiencies and I am conscious of how improvements could be made at times quite easily. However, when I go on national TV or radio, I am aware of the need to present the positive along with the negative to give a true picture of what today’s railway is like and I do at times turn down interviews, for example, when the researchers are seeking to highlight some tremendous risk which, in fact, is a relatively minor lapse or inconsequential. That said, I am willing to give the railway both barrels when clearly there is something amiss such as the Elsenham crossing where two teenage girls were killed in December 2005.
On the whole, however, there is more to praise in the railways than to criticise. Most trains are modern, many stations have been renovated, safety has improved remarkably – with the tenth anniversary of Potters Bar next month, there will have been just one passenger death in a decade – and new technology has been harnessed to improve ticket purchase. There is much more, too, which explains why people have been flocking to the railway.
Just look, for example, at what is happening in London. Renovated stations are popping up with almost the frequency of a Javelin shuttle. Blackfriars, Farringdon, and Paddington are all remarkable and there’s plenty more to come with the completion of the Crossrail and Thameslink projects. I visited the site of Tottenham Court Road recently where the combination of expanding the existing totally inadequate Underground station, together with building Crossrail is costing a cool £1bn. But you can see why. The work is being carried out on an extremely small site where every lorry load and every skip movement has to be planned and phased in to ensure that there is not a queue of trucks blocking the traffic on Charing Cross Road – it’s worth a trip to the overpriced restaurant at the top of Centrepoint to see how efficient the operation is. And it will produce a concourse four times the size of its predecessor as well as an emblematic glass entrance.
It is not, of course, all London. Reading station, too, where I have been for a site visit recently is another example of innovation and expansion, both sorting out the bottleneck for trains and creating a much better ‘passenger experience’ (ooops, sorry, have been reading too many press releases!) Up North there is the Northern hub recently confirmed by George Osborne in his budget. And so on.
So yes, there is money wasted in the industry. Yes, the fares system is unfathomable. Yes, at times the railways does not do itself any favours. Yes, they cost too much to run and they are still hamstrung by a dysfunctional structure that no government has dared to tackle. But the transformation from, say, 30 years ago is remarkable. But overall, as Nigel Harris suggested in his column two issues ago when criticising the lack of decent PRs in the industry, the railways do not get the press they deserve. There are exceptions. To end on a positive note, there has been one remarkable recent TV series, the observational programme on The Tube on BBC2 which highlighted the work of the men and women behind the scenes. Without glorifying them and at times showing the warts, the programme managed to convey the problems of running such a complex system, but also emphasised the satisfaction which the staff get from their jobs. Now if there is a train operator brave enough to give me and a TV crew similar access, I can guarantee we could make a similar series. Sadly, I tried to do this last year but no one would play ball, a lost opportunity.
Armed police only likely to make matters worse
One innovation that is not cause for celebration is that with very little discussion or publicity, suddenly passenger find themselves confronted by armed police at major stations. When you start analysing the circumstances in which these cops would help a situation by firing their weapons, it becomes clear their only value is deterrence.
For example, the IRA style (now largely defunct) was to leave suitcases or parcels lying around and detonate them remotely. Suicide bombers do not care if they get shot while in Madrid the method was simply to leave bags on crowded trains. In fact, the only circumstance in which these police might intervene successfully would be in a Mumbai style attack by a group of armed terrorists but even then firing in the narrow environment of a crowded railway station would be quite likely to result in ‘friendly fire’ casualties.
I have talked to a senior police officer about deployment and it was clear that the decision was made by ministers – in other words for political, not operational reasons, to show that ‘something is being done’.
When I blogged about this in the Guardian, an extra reason for not deploying these cops was raised. One respondent suggested it would not be impossible for terrorists to get hold of the guns and use them against the public. Of course the policeman are trained and normally work in pairs, but if Mr Al Qaeda is also versed in using weapons – remember how the 9/11 attackers had taken flying lessons – the suggestion is not outlandish. In any case, the point is that this certainly highlights that there are added risks from having armed men in stations and it is deeply disappointing that there has been so little debate about this. Frankly, seeing police with semi-automatic weapons does little to make me feel safer. It raises the overall temperature of fear, just like the endless stream of security and safety notices. Living in a democracy requires an appropriate balancing of risks, and undoubtedly this decision tips it the wrong way. The response to terrorism can be as damaging as the attacks themselves. It is odd that at the time of the IRA bombings, the attitude of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was much more prevalent than it is today in this era of 24 hour news and instant responses. .