It is election time so the railways are forgotten. Every time there is a general election, I make the point that the railways, indeed transport as a whole, are do not figure in the hustings apart from the odd reference to fares and perhaps potholes. On the day I wrote this column, (April 7), the Times ran a feature listing the 11 key issues of the election, ranging from unemployment to defence and Europe to Education, and mention of transport – there was none.
So I thought I would set a series of questions for Rail readers to ask of any candidates they happen to come across during the hustings. They are the sort that are never asked in the normal scheme of things or, if they are, are never answered. And I offer a few suggestions on what might be a good response.
Let’s start with a really hard one: Do you want more people to travel? On the face of it, the answer should be of course, because travel is a good thing and opens up opportunities. However, the negative effects of creating a transport system are all too obvious. Who wants to live next to a motorway, a busy road or even a high speed line? Moreover, with the effects of climate change becoming more apparent almost daily, the high carbon footprint of transport is a source of constant concern. So the right answer is a nuanced one.
OK, but what about the railways – surely we should be encouraging rail travel. So that can bring us to the second question: What should the transport industry do about climate change? Clearly, a sensible transport policy would have at its root a shift from less to more sustainable modes, and the railways fit the bill – though note that they still have a considerable effect. I remember a decade ago being shocked when at an aviation press conference I asked Alistair Darling, the then Transport Secretary, whether he would encourage people to use trains instead of planes for long distance travel and his answer basically amounted to ‘the government has not influence over this, the market should decide’. Well that is plain wrong. There are many levers in government’s hands to influence what type of transport people use both for short and long distance journeys, and that is an issue that good candidates should be able to address.
Inevitably, therefore, this leads to the issue of HS2 since its advocates argue that it will attract more people on to the railways. In what I think is a great derogation of their duty in a democracy, all three main parties support the construction so there is little point simply asking a question about whether the candidate is in favour – even though many MPs I have spoken to are adamantly opposed to it.
Instead, ironically, opposition to HS2 is one of the few points of agreement between the two parties which are most different, UKIP and the Greens, So instead, given the questions I raised about speed and design of the line in my last column, a better one to ask would be: Do you support HS2 as currently designed? The advantage of posing a more open question like that is to test the candidates’ understanding of what should be one of the big issues in the election but will not feature because of the cross party agreement.
Then try to test the candidates’ knowledge of railway issues. The most one that most people are concerned about is, of course, fares so lob over a general question such as: What do you think should be the government’s policy on fares? In terms of rises, it is clear that no party can now continue the policy of continuing above inflation rises given the Coalition’s difficulty over this. Indeed, I think it is time to press for a couple of years of zero rises and since inflation has now fallen to zero, this may be quite possible, although of course it is the July inflation figures that determine the rise.
However, there is more to fares than simply the rise. The fact that the fares system is incomprehensible to everyone but Barry Doe – and even he struggles at times – is a major negative for the railways. Repeated promises to sort it out have foundered on the sheer scale of the task but it should be possible to iron out the worst anomalies and to stop the inexorable rise of walk up fares on long distance travel that now see peak time fares between London and Manchester which are now £329 return being in the same bracket as a flight to New York or even India.
Then, and I can’t resist this, ask the question Is franchising out the whole railway a sensible policy? This should, at least, elicit different from Labour and Tory politicians. Indeed, Labour people could be pressed on precisely what the party’s policy of having a franchise review and ensuring that there is a public sector bidder for future franchise processes means. And, what did the party’s transport spokesman, Michael Dugher, mean when he said ‘I’m adamant about putting the whole franchising system, as it stands today, in the bin’ ? Sounds radical, but did he mean it.
As for the Tories, they can be pressed on the collapse of the franchising system after the West Coast fiasco and the growing complexity of the system which means bids are so expensive and operators work under very tight constraints.
Finally a deceptively easy question but one where the pat answer is not good enough: Would you like to see more freight on rail and if so how? Every politician loves the idea of freight on rail – in theory – but as my recent column on the chequered history of the plan for a new north south freight line shows, getting lorries off the road is a big challenge. So the second part of the question as to how it could be done is essential.
There are of course lots of other questions on the railways to ask such as on the investment plans and whether they can be realised, electrification, renationalisation, reducing overcrowding, reopening lines and protecting the railway against climate change. If you get a candidate on your doorstep, start asking them. I’ll be delighted to hear the results if any readers manage to entrap any hapless candidates and fire these questions at them.
Penalty fares own goal
Two and a half years ago (Rail 713) I wrote about a Paul Davies whose son had, to his mind, been unfairly prosecuted for inadvertently sitting in a First Class compartment on a Southern train where the demarcation between the classes was unclear. Now, the tireless Davies, a man I would not like to face in a court of law, is still at it and has won a partial victory through his dogged and, to put it bluntly, obsessive efforts.
Davies discovered that the supposedly independent appeals service to which disputes are referred was nothing of the sort and was, in fact, a subsidiary of SouthEastern, owned by the same parent company, GoVia, as Southern. Worse, the profits from the appeals process actually went to the operator and therefore there was a vested interest in not letting complaints off. His son’s appeal failed and Southern actually used doctored photographs showing clear markings of First Class which, in fact, did not exist.
Davies persistence has led to the Department for Transport issuing a consultation paper in February 2015 – seemingly inspired by Davies’s continued harassment of the Department over the issue – which suggests that GoVia should dispose of its appeals service subsidiary, the Independent Penalty Fares Appeals Service. The paper says: ‘The Code of Practice used by each penalty fares appeal body would require updating to prohibit them from being financially or managerially associated in any way with transport operators or owning groups.’ It is pretty amazing that it has taken this long to sort out such a basic issue and no wonder Davies felt that his son was not properly treated by the appeals process.
There will be other changes, too. The consultation paper admits that even those who won appeals against penalty fares could still be charged an administration fee – a kind of heads you lose, tails I win – and thankfully this will now be scrapped. There will also be a third tier to which passengers can appeal if they fell they have not been properly treated.
Reform is long overdue. As I wrote at the time, the railways must not only to act fairly, but they have to be seen to do so. There is a wider issue here. The privatised companies still make use of by-laws and regulations that were designed when the railways were operated by a state company and now that structure is inappropriate. While most conductors do act with discretion, there are far too many examples of cases when they do not and creating a field that at least looks level will be a good start.