Rail 906: The railways must stop telling people not to use them

Whatever happened to ALARP? That’s the safety principle by which the railway is supposed to function in relation to safety. It stands for As Low As Reasonably Possible but somehow the R has been forgotten. That is the only possible explanation for what is happening to the industry at the moment. And I do not say this lightly, but the railways face an existential threat by failing to plot a coherent path through the Covid crisis.

The railways are up against a hidden enemy and it is not Covid-19. The industry currently has the worst of all worlds and its managers are now being forced into a policy which is likely to ruin its long term viability and lead to cutbacks in investment programmes and services. And to make it worse, the railways have no one to represent their interests in the media or in the corridors of Whitehall to lobby against what is being imposed on them.

Since I first wrote in Rail 903 that operating a railway is incompatible with social distancing, I have had many conversations with senior railway people and privately they all agree –‘it’s just we can’t say this in public’, they bleat. I do understand why.

The crazy policy of telling people not to travel by public transport while injuncting them to go to work comes from the very top of government. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s Rasputin, is obsessed with data  and in particular avoiding a second wave of the pandemic which during the flu epidemic of 1918/9 proved more deadly than the first. Therefore, despite the criticism Boris Johnson has received over loosening the lockdown too quickly, the opposite is really the case. Cummings and his colleagues are only interested in data, and thanks to all the scare stories, public opinion is wary of any release of the lockdown. In particular, public transport has been portrayed as risky and therefore the government’s dhas ensured that this is reflected in policy. And public transport is paying the price.

Hence the injunctions not to use public transport and the imposition of unworkable measures on the rail industry. The idea that you can socially distance on trains is a nonsense. Even if only a fifth of seats are used – and I am not going into silly games about just how many seats can be used if the 2 metre rule is observed – what about at the stations, on the platforms, on walkways and on escalators (where walking up will be banned and people will only be able to use every sixth step.

This is all utter madness. The railways are dancing to a tune set by the government based on the haziest of scientific notions. The 2 metre rule is completely arbitrary as no explanation has been given as to why the WHO recommends 1 metre and yet our government has insisted on double that. There is, too, very little evidence that the disease can be caught through casual contact outside as it seems that it mostly transmitted between family members or in settings such as hospitals and care homes. As a jogger who avoids going anywhere near people, I can see how some are in a total and probably misguided panic over such contacts.

Crucially, there is a big difference between observing a 2 metre rule and having a reasonable amount of social interaction. It is clear that merely passing someone in a train that may be half full is less of a risk than being in a totally crowded Tube train. Sensible advice would be to use the trains but to try to socially distance as much as possible.  That would allow, say, a 40-50 per cent occupancy, something the French have argued is acceptable – 10-15 per cent destroys the very purpose of train travel.

The worst of this is the failure to take into account the varied risks posed to different groups of the population. Professor David Spiegelhalter said on Radio 4 that only 26 people – out of 17 million – under 25 have died with only two under 15s. Similarly, he said, the risk of people of working age dying from the disease is minimal and yet it is these people, the commuters and the business travellers, who are being told not to use public transport and instead resort to their cars which causes pollution and congestion.

How did we get to this terrible situation?  Oddly, as someone who supports the idea of a renationalised railway, it is government control that is at root of the problem . Quite rightly, the Department for Transport’s immediate response to the crisis was effectively to nationalise the railways. Well it was not expressed like that and in fact it is rather more complex. The government has taken back the risk element of fares income which it had to do given that within days all of the franchises would have gone bust. Certain daft conditions were made to comply with the government’s ideological intent, such as putting in requirements to supposedly incentivise the private operators to be efficient. By and large, however, the government is now in charge and while originally the Transport Secretary announced this was only for six months, the existing franchises, as Phil Haigh wrote in the last issue, are as redundant as the 1815 Treaty of Vienna.

This has created a situation in which the government is in full control of the railways. In addition to its control of Network Rail, the government is now in day to day control of the rail operations, able to dictate all aspects of the service. In any viable scenario of renationalisation, the idea was always to ensure that the railways were at arms length from the Department since it was recognised that it is always a bad idea allowing civil servants to run the show. The railways must be run by a body with the right level of expertise as was the case with British Rail. Direct running by the Department of Transport is the worst of all worlds but that is precisely what we have ended up precisely with.

Worse, without such a body, there is no one to defend the industry. The Rail Delivery Group is a supine organisation that has always been far too frightened of its paymasters to say anything that might annoy ministers. Network Rail is a creature of government and, indeed, its chairman, Sir Peter Hendy, has been a key exponent of the unworkable idea of a socially distanced railway.

There is, therefore, no one to speak up for the railways and question a policy that is unworkable. Moreover, in the medium to long term, it difficult to see how the railways emerge from this. Let’s assume that no vaccine is found for two years, a perfectly feasible premise. Are the railways seriously going to be forced to adopt these rules for this long – in which case they will be redundant as a form of mass transport?

The current policies being imposed on the railways are unworkable in every way. The railways can only provide a service as a turn up and go alternative to other forms of transport. Forcing passengers to book in advance is not a feasible option. Sure that may be fine between London and Glasgow, but not between other InterCity services such as Newcastle and Durham or Coventry and Birmingham, let alone commuter routes. And is anyone seriously suggesting I will have to book my Tube trip between Tufnell Park and Euston. No, of course not. And once you start turning away travellers because trains are ‘full’, you end up with crowds of people and a rail system no one will want to use. Yet I no railway spokesperson has dared to express these doubts in public and to argue for a more measured and sensible approach. And worst of all, why has no one in the industry advocated for a universal requirement for face covering – even if it is just a scarf or old tea towel – mandatory sanitising bottles at every station and other sensible,  but workable, measures. That is why I wrote in The Times on May 19 that the railways are on a suicide mission if they do not adopt a more rational approach.

London’s dozen cathedrals

Thanks to the lockdown, I have managed to finish my book, Cathedrals of Steam, on London’s terminus stations rather more quickly than I might have otherwise. Before researching it, I had not really considered why London has no fewer than a dozen major terminus stations, far more than any other city in the world.

The answer, of course, is down to the British exceptionalism. Whereas most countries in the world developed their railways as a partnership between private and public interests, in Britain, as in the USA, the system was promoted and developed by private interests with very little government involvement apart from Parliamentary approval for the Bills authorising construction. There was an element of planning in London but that did not prevent, for example, three stations (or four given Victoria was effectively two separate stations) being built over the space of just a few years in the 1860s on the north side of the Thames but all primarily serving destinations to the south. Nor did it prevent on three occasions adjoining stations being built by rival companies. With the exception of Marylebone, these stations – and several defunct predecessors – were all built between 1836 and 1874, transforming both the capital and the nation’s railways. Today, it takes a couple of decades to get one station built!

The book which has been one of the most fun to write will be published in November and let’s hope that by then you will be able to pop into a bookshop to browse and buy, rather than using the soulless Amazon.