Commuters in the South East can be excused for feeling bemused at the coverage given to passengers in Bristol complaining about their rotten train service this week. Westcountry travellers’ problems pale beside those experienced regularly by many travelling by train into London, as underlined by this newspaper’s survey. And unlike the Bristol travellers, commuters in the South East have faced these problems of overcrowding and having to stand on long journeys for years. There has been a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers on the rail network over the past decade, but while a few lines have extra trains, many such as the old Thameslink services (now unaccountably called First Capital Connect) operate at exactly the same frequency as before. It is little wonder that people have trouble even getting on to trains, let alone finding a seat.
But here’s a warning. Even if you are lucky enough not to have to stand on your train, your good luck may not last long. Because these latest problems are down not so much to the train operators as the politicians and civil servants who set the terms of the franchise deals. And unless Government is made to wake up to the appalling service that will result for commuters, then our journeys to work are going to get even more unbearable.
For several years after the Hatfield train crash, passengers’ big complaint was train delays and cancellations. Now the industry, to its credit, has largely sorted that out – albeit thanks to huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. Instead, overcrowding is now becoming the single most important source of complaint. If the government is serious about wanting more people on the railways rather than in cars because of environmental reasons, then the answer is not to allow fares to rise to choke off demand – British Rail’s old policy – but to ensure that there is more capacity. And paying for that is government’s resposibility.
Instead, consider what has happened under the new Great Wetsern franchise that they’ve been protesting about in Bristol. The number of coaches leased by the company had to be cut from over 130 to 112, forcing many services to run with fewer carriages or be cancelled altogether. Whoever won the franchise would have had to agree to similar reductions. And most of the blame lies squarely with the Department for Transport and its ministers, who have been attempting to micromanage the contract from 100 miles away.
The problem is that commuting services, especially over short distances, do not make a profit. While the trains may be overcrowded for a couple of daily journeys at peak times, for most of the day they are standing in sidings or carrying around a lot of air. FirstGroup is a commercial business which will only run trains or put on enough carriages if the services are profit- making – or if the government specifies that they must do so. So the Government, by allowing FirstGroup to cut back on services, knew exactly what was going to happen.
The buck stops with Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, and his team of transport ministers. Yet far from trying to alleviate the situation, they are about to make it worse. Over the past couple of years a series of franchises – GNER, Kent, Great Western – have been let on very onerous terms which mean that the franchisee has to pay a lot of money to the Treasury instead of receiving subsidy from the government. Already one, GNER, has gone bust and is having to be re-let, while Great Western is now under enormous pressure from ministers to improve or hand back the keys.
This new franchise policy of screwing the rail companies will undoubtedly end in tears – first for passengers but then, hopefully, for the politicians.
Two things must now happen to ensure that we do not get years of similar chaos in London and the Home Counties. First, we need a new, railways agency so that the industry is run by accountable professionals rather than the faceless civil servants who hide in their Whitehall bunkers making decisions which affect millions of people. Those civil servants’ calibre is well illustrated by the insensitivity shown by the Department’s rail chief, Mike Mitchell, who told a recent hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee that even passengers paying £5,000 per year were not necessarily entitled to a seat. Technically he may have been right, but the crass remark was hardly likely to fulfil the government’s aim of attracting more people on to the railways. These people will never be able to run a railway.
Secondly, there needs to be a long-term commitment to put more money into the South East commuter rail network. This is not about big projects like Crossrail and Thameslink 2000, but about investing in relatively small items such as extra carriages and longer platforms. There is plenty of money available – if only Gordon Brown were prepared to spend it. Instead of demanding huge premium payments from train operators, the government should allow the operators to invest the money in increasing capacity. This could even be done through some clever Private Finance Initiative deal, of the kind so beloved of our Chancellor, to avoid schemes appearing on his books.
Sadly, there is no sign yet of this happening. The recent South West Trains deal, which starts next month, was signed under a similar arrangement as First Great Western, with the company paying £1.2bn to the Government over the ten-year term. This will undoubtedly lead to pressure on the company to meet financial targets and any service not specified in its contract could be cut.
The present situation simply cannot continue. The anger out there is palpable. I was on a phone-in programme on Radio 5 yesterday which was inundated from calls all around the country. Commuters in the South East need to be as canny as the Bristol travellers and start running similar campaigns, putting on pressure on MPs to ensure that money is spent on their lines – rather than ending up back in Gordon Brown’s coffers. And the longer Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown ignore that anger, the more savagely it will rebound on them as our daily commuter services reach crisis point.
Christian Wolmar is author of The Subterranean Railway, a social history of the Tube, Atlantic Books, £9 99.