Two weeks is a short time on the railways

I’ve been away in India for the past two weeks, where news of Britain is rare and newspapers rarer. And I eschewed the internet, for once, to have a real holiday. But what a story I missed. Certainly the phone was buzzing with requests for media interviews but I had not realised, until getting back, that the West Coast Main Line had suddenly suffered from a series of supposedly unrelated mishaps that had wrecked the timetable for much of the first working week of the year. And the fares issue rumbled on, keeping the railways in the news for all the wrong reasons.

I was sent a briefing by Network Rail on the West Coast problems and they assure me that the three collapses of the overhead wires are from unrelated issues and therefore implying it is all a coincidence. Indeed, it certainly was not the railway’s fault that an aeroplane should take out the wires in a fourth incident!

However, while i am not a conspiracy theorist, but i somewhat suspect that the strain on the line caused by the rush to finish the work and then the intensive use under the new Virgin timetable, together with the cold weather, may have had something to do with the various collapses. According to Network Rail, the first collapse last Sunday (4th January) was due to a broken screw assembly at Watford, a component that should last 30 years but failed after 20. The second the following day at Bletchley was due to a failed joint on the catenary, something that had only happened once before.  And the third, at Wembley, on the 6th – in other words three in three days! – was a result of a minor fault in installation two and a half years ago.

Network Rail has launched an inquiry to look at the ‘overhead line pantograph’ interface and I somewhat suspect that it will yield more intersting results than ‘it was all a coincidence’. Meanwhile, the railways, which are facing their most dramatic 12 months since privatisation, have started the year on the back foot. It is interesting to note that Lord Adonis has issued a press release encouraging travellers to claim compensation for their delayed or cancelled journeys.

The whole compensation issue is one that needs thorough examination. Train operators get massive compensation from the taxpayer (ie Network Rail) when something goes wrong, but they are very lax about handing out forms – or indeed information – to their passengers who get delayed. This aspect of the franchise is not, as far as I know, policed at all and it is commendable that Lord Adonis has encouraged passengers to ensure that the operators cough up. In the longer term, he should look at this issue more closely, possibly instituting a regime of fining operators which do not hand out forms.

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