July Newsletter: The self-destruction of the rail industry

There has been pretty much only one theme to my recent writings – in The Times, the New Statesman  and Railall of which are on my website – and that is the insanity of what is happening in the rail industry.
While the bus industry is presenting ways of ‘welcoming people back to buses’, the railways are still putting out the messaging that suggests you are going to die if you get on a train. Instead of taking measures to reduce risk to passengers and reassuring them that everything would be done to protect them, the railways have gone along with this scare tactic which is disproportionate to the risks of using the railways. This has now been going on for three months and represents an existential crisis for the industry. Already, even without this ridiculous messaging there would be a problem given that some people will undoubtedly swap their season ticket for a comfy office chair to use in front of their screen at home. Huge  numbers of people will no longer be buying five day per week season tickets but instead drop into the office when really needed.  That already suggests that the days of the strap-hanging rush hour commuter funding much of the investment in the railway have gone forever.
On top of this, there is the prospect of many people being too scared to use the railways. Until a vaccine or a cure, or both, are found, there will be a considerable number of people who will avoid using the railways. Many journeys are discretionary or can be undertaken by other means, more socially isolated than trains. Trying to shift public sentiment away from ‘the trains will kill you’ to ‘please come and use our railway’ will take a long time and some of that damage may be permanent. The implication down the line for the railways is appalling. Investment programmes are bound to be cut back, branch lines may be threatened with closures and the industry will become totally dependent on vast amounts of subsidy which may not be forthcoming for ever.
What were the the train companies, the unions, Network Rail and ministers thinking when they agreed to this messaging? The contrast with the bus industry is remarkable. The difference may be that they are commercial outfits, only partly dependent on the government shilling while the railways are now entirely dependent on it. Privately I know a lot of railway executives are furious – but publicly none, apart from the retired Michael Holden have been prepared to speak out about this disastrous policy.
I really believe this is an existential threat to the railways and one will have lasting damaging. Watch out for my column on this in the forthcoming issue of Rail which is based on the famous J’accuse letter written by Emile Zola on the Dreyfus Affair.
More happily, I have been busy under lockdown which has proved to be a very efficient period.
. What else is there to do but bash away at the keyboard, apart from running, cycling, playing ping pong in my garden and, recently tennis? There’s just so many books you can read and TV box sets you can watch, and so not only have I finished my Cathedrals of Steam, the story of London’s terminus stations, just a few weeks late, but I have revised editions of two of my other books coming out in the autumn. I’ve added a chapter on Crossrail to my history of the Underground, The Subterranean Railway, which remains my bestselling book to make up the revised third edition. And I have also added a chapter to Driverless Cars: on a road to nowhere, my polemic about the madness of the whole autonomous vehicle industry which, to blow my own trumpet for a moment, as predicted in the first edition does not seem to be getting anywhere, despite the billions of dollars being poured into tests and trials. All three of these books will be published in the autumn.

Therefore a special offer for the last few weeks of lockdown – my two polemics for London Partnership Publishing, Driversless Cars  and Are Trams Socialist?, which is my history of transport policy, for just £12 and £3 post and packing. Just email me Christian.wolmar@gmail.com

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