The Fat Controller is the least popular figure in the Thomas the Tank engine stories. Yet he is the most important. He decides what engines take the trains out and what carriages they have to haul. He sets the timetable and makes decisions over which engines should be scrapped.
The problem with today’s railway is that there is nobody who takes on the role. That was made clear in the report by Professor Stephen Glaister, the chairman of the Office of Rail and Road, into the chaos that paralysed the railways in May following an extensive timetable change.
In a logical world, you might think, dear rail passenger, that Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, is the man in charge. After all, he is the one who pops up on TV when there is good news to announce, such as the opening of a refurbished station or the introduction of new trains, but you would be wrong. Grayling refuses to take responsibility, recently telling a Parliamentary committee that ‘I don’t run the railways’.
Yet his civil servants in the Department interfere with the railways all the time. They make decisions over what services should be run, the fares to be charged, what new trains should be bought and which private company should operate them.
Glaister’s report makes clear that Grayling was deeply involved in making the decision to go ahead with the timetable changes, even though the industry was not prepared for them. If Grayling was not in charge, then he should have made sure that someone else was – but failed to do so.
It’s clear from yesterday’s report that no one has overall responsibility for the railways and that’s why they are in such a mess.
Glaister’s report highlights the fact that the railways were simply not ready to cope with the wholesale timetable changes, which were focussed around services through London on the Thameslink lines and across the North, and overall affected nearly half – 46 per cent – of trains on the whole network.
The report shows that the railway simply could not cope. The changes brought the railways to their knees, resulting in thousands of services being cancelled and countless others being delayed. Many passengers in May were left standing at stations for hours, as successive trains failed to turn up. On one branch line, in the Lake District, services were cancelled entirely and temporarily replaced by a diesel-hauled heritage train – which proved to be more popular than the usual service, especially as it was free.
The introduction of the timetable resulted in the worst ever performance of the railways in more than a decade, with one in eight trains being late during this period. The after-effects are still being felt, with daily cancellations and delays, and it will be several months before things are back to normal.
Glaister does not mince his words and found every part of the industry wanting. Network Rail, which is responsible for drawing up the timetable, ‘did not take any action’ back in the autumn when it was clear there would be trouble implementing the new schedules. The two train operators, Govia Thameslink and Northern, ‘were not sufficiently aware’ of the problems and failed to inform passengers when disruption occurred, while the Department for Transport and the Office of Road and Rail itself watched these events unfold without doing anything or questioning whether the introduction of the timetable should be postponed.
The irony is that the timetable changes were introduced to increase the number of trains available to commuters. In particular, in the North, the opening of the new Ordsall Curve linking Manchester’s two main railway stations was designed to improve services in the region. However, because Network Rail failed to ensure that more platforms were built at the biggest station, Piccadilly, the result has been longer delays and numerous cancellations.
That is the sort of lack of coordination which happens because British Rail was broken up at privatisation in the 1990s into more than 100 companies and passengers are paying the price for that mistake today. The biggest error was to separate the services, run by companies like Virgin and Arriva, from the infrastructure, which is in the hands of Network Rail (originally Railtrack), when, in fact, the railways run much better as a single entity. Ironically, the Prime Minister at the time, John Major, had wanted the railway to be sold off as just four or five large companies that both ran services and were responsible for the tracks and stations, but he was overruled by the Treasury, which wanted competition between companies, something that has simply not happened.
As a result of the timetable chaos and other recent problems on the railways, such as the failure of the East Coast franchise and overspending on electrification schemes by Network Rail, Grayling has launched an inquiry into the state of the railways. It is the fourth such inquiry in the past decade and the others have largely been ignored.
This time there is an obvious and clear solution. Create an organisation independent of the duffers in Whitehall who keep on interfering with the railways, and make sure it is headed by a Fat Controller who has power to make decisions over the whole railway including the timetable, investment plans and services. Inevitably, this will at first have to be a publicly owned body since Network Rail is currently owned by the government but to appease any Tories opposed to renationalisation, Grayling could say that eventually it might be privatised – though given the experience of the crisis-ridden past 20 years, that day may well be a long time off