Rail 643: Patchy response to ash crisis


It was an unprecedented disaster and the railways pulled out all the stops. In the space of just four days, they carried an extra 225,000 people, at no charge, which was virtually all those who had been affected. The main line railway ran an extra 129 trains, with a total of 900 coaches while a staggering 739 additional services were run by the suburban company.

 This was not the recent airspace shutdown but the evacuation of the whole population of San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. It was a time when there was no alternative form of transport to move such huge numbers of people and illustrates the way that the railways were able to respond to an emergency as they had vast resources built up in their 75 year history.

 It would be unfair to expect the railways to respond so comprehensively to a current day situation like the volcanic ash crisis. They simply do not have the equipment and staff to do so because of the requirement to work to tightly controlled budgets.

 There is a wider, point, too. Much as we like to think of the railways as an essential part of the infrastructure, they are in effect an adjunct of the transport system, an important part of it, but by no means the dominant form of travel. Otherwise, they would not be shut down so regularly at weekends!

 This does not excuse their patchy performance in the face of what was both a potential nightmare and a golden opportunity. There were some excellent responses, such as Network Rail’s immediate abandonment of weekend working to allow through trains between London and Scotland, and the quick action of Arriva Trains Wales which even attracted compliments from Railfuture: ‘Arriva Trains Wales provided additional train services from Holyhead to Crewe and additional coaches on trains to and from both Fishguard Harbour and Holyhead which well matched the capacity required. Their trains were well staffed and passengers were able to obtain information about onward travel and in most cases refreshments were also available’.

 Now that’s how it should be, but there were failings too. While Virgin and East Coast did eventually put on a few extra services, the response at first was slow and there was no repeat of Virgin’s clever offer during the BA strike of offering free seats to air passengers. Moreover, information was, at least initially, slow to get onto websites and the first response seems to have been – keep off our trains, they are full.

 This was particularly true of Eurostar which was slow to respond and to understand the scale of the emergency. I logged onto the Eurostar website a few times in the initial days of the crisis and there was no information, except to warn people not to arrive without tickets at the stations as all the trains were full. Irritatingly, too, there were lots of offers of £69 return trips on display, which could not have impressed the poor stranded people who were trying to get information about immediate services.

 Eurostar’s PR boss Mary Walsh assures me that there was better information later in the crisis but I saw little evidence of it, nor did respondents to my blog. Eurostar’s knee jerk response was also, as it was in its winter crisis, to put the shutters up and tell people to go away. Later on, the company did put on extra trains – a total of 71 in ten days – which, while helpful, seems inadequate given that both train sets and paths are available. Moreover, after the initial rush, the company realised that it was a PR disaster to charge the full normal walk up and go fare of £179 one way to Paris – which is a shocker at the best of times, especially as if you are in the know you can often book a cheaper return even for an immediate train and chuck away the return ticket – and sold the extra, seats, even in first class, at £89 one way.

 There was however, overall a lack of imagination about the response. Why did not Eurostar with Eurotunnel, which of course does not take foot passengers and yet clearly had lots of spare capacity, create a shuttle service between Ashford and Calais Frethun. It would have been a wonderful publicity coup. Extra trains could have been run to other destinations where people were stuck

 Contrast this with Celebrity Cruises, the shipping company which abandoned its launch celebrations for a new ship, Celebrity Express, and sent it off to Bilbao to pick up stranded passengers. That provided the company with a moment on TV news that must have boosted their bottom line more than a year’s advertising . A middle aged lady passenger who had just stepped off the boat was saying how well the had been treated when the reporter went over to the PR man from the cruise company. He smiled and addressed the lady saying ‘just to see the smile on your face makes it all worthwhile’. Priceless.

 Part of the problem for the rail industry is, yet again, the lack of a unified voice. There should be, at the very least, an emergency adhoc committee with membership across the industry, to deal with such events and as a side effect provide unified PR. Overall, therefore, this was a missed opportunity to create, for the railways, an image of flexibility and efficiency.

 There was much publicity in the media about how the crisis had cost the economy £xbn or £ybn. It is all total and utter nonsense, the result of the media’s insatiable desire for impossible precision. In fact, there were clear beneficiaries from the crisis, such as the train companies and the lucky taxi drivers getting their best fares of their lives.

 A more interesting question is the lasting effect. Will, for example, both train companies and airlines suffer as businesses find that the expensive video conferencing equipment bought in response to the crisis is a better alternative to sending executives around the country for short meetings. Indeed, Europe’s transport ministers ‘met’ by video conferencing during the crisis. I remain convinced that as transport failures such as the BA strike, the Eurostar breakdown and this latest crisis multiply, more and more companies will decide that it is more efficient to replace business travel with new types of communicating. But I have been wrong about this before!

Election demands

The responses to my request for suggestions for changes in the industry that could be implemented by the new government predictably focussed on fares. There were several demands for ‘a fair and rational’ system. Fares is the main concern for passengers and yet it is a little discussed issue. The Libdems have, interestingly, put in their manifesto that regulated fares will go back to the RPI – 1 per cent formula, rather than the current + 1 per cent but that still does not address the fundamental issue about fares.

 ATOC has launched a review into fares but will do nothing which the companies perceive as reducing their income, particularly in these parlous times. I remain convinced that it is essential to get the ridiculously high walk up fares reduced which are a poor advertisement for the industry and, frankly, a rip off. Any party which promises that gets my vote.

 Respondents to my request for ideas were pretty unanimous, too, on the notion that there will be cuts to the rail budget after the election. It does, indeed, seem to me a remarkable contradiction that all the parties are supporting the biggest engineering project ever seen in this country, the new high speed line, while contemplating the deepest cuts in public spending ever seen. Something will have to give. 

 My former colleague on The Independent, Nick Faith, was the only person brave enough to submit a whole ‘rail manifesto’. He writes: ‘we have to start from the fact that the English attitude towards railways is comparable to that of the Americans towards “Socialised Health Care’” a fatal mix of ignorance and prejudice. The result is a gross imbalance: money spent on improving roads constitutes ‘investment’ while the same amount spent on its rail equivalent is a “subsidy”’.

 He argues that more important than a unified rail lobby is to have real clout in government. Hence he suggest the creation of a Ministry of Railways: ‘The first essential element in correcting the imbalance must start at the heart of government enabling it to act, not as a lobby but as a driving force. At the moment railways are a – generally neglected – element within a marginal ministry. Hence the need for a Ministry of Railways, a normal feature of other European governments.’

 The Ministry would incorporate the Office of Rail Regulation, and would ‘supervise the industry’s structure’: ‘It would be staffed exclusively by specialists, not just engineers and railwaymen but also planners and economists, to help bolster the railways’ case. Moreover, and crucially, it would be attached to the Prime Minister’s office and the minister responsible, while not a member of the cabinet, would be called in whenever rail-related matters were being discussed – and the minister would also be a member of the relevant cabinet committees.’ That is the only way, he suggests, to ensure that railways are an independent factor in government thinking.

 What about Network Rail?  Mr Faith reckons ‘it is impossible to split it up but easy to make it more responsible to operators – and contractors. In some instances things are already moving in the right direction, with a new chairman obviously intending to improve the ludicrous inadequacy of NR’s governance system. Obviously a railway-staffed Ministry of Railways would be able to exert greater influence on NR – perhaps through two standing committees with real powers, one of NR and the operators, the other of NR and its suppliers and contractors. In addition NR would be forced to take seriously demands for independence, from bodies like Merseyrail – and Cornwall’s County Council?’

 Interestingly, at the recent Rail breakfast, Lord Adonis was dismissive of his opponents’ plans to reform the governance structure of Network Rail. I reckon that was a mistake – and if, as I have long predicted, there will be a hung parliament, possibly with the good lord still in post, I suspect he will have to change his tune.

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