Forgive me if I welcome the New Year by letting off a bit of steam (and breaking my rule about never using railway puns!) But at the risk of sounding like an angry old man, there is rather a lot to get off my chest as the rail industry is in dire straits and it needs a lot of detail thought about how to get out of the mess but sadly it seems the same old mistakes are about to be made again.
Let me start off with my recent triangular trip from London to Bristol and Brighton. Such trips are notoriously expensive because you cannot take advantage of the £1 returns which are available on former InterCity routes but make no sense as part of a rational fares structure. By grabbing a supersaver and using my senior Railcard, the first leg cost just £23 for the 105 mile journey. The next leg from Bristol to Brighton, however, was far more expensive as services are provided by two train operators who offer fewer discounts and therefore originally I was quoted at just over £40 but then, thanks to asking for split ticketing, the very helpful lady in the ticket office reduced it to £35 for the 115 mile journey. Then the final leg of 50 miles, on Thameslink, took me from Brighton to London for jut £8 60 because the company offers particularly cheap weekend travel.
I benefitted from knowing the system, but how many people are paying more than they need to because of the complexity of the system with its variation in price from in this instance,17p per mile to30p. That, therefore, is beef number one: the need for radical fares reform which almost everyone in the industry agrees is urgent – though they may well disagree on the details. My simple solution would be to create a universal railcard for all off peak travel, give anyone who pays more than £2,500 for a season ticket free travel at all other times and scarp all split ticketing by setting fares at the lowest combination available today. But then I am no expert.
My beef number two is the total lack of focus on passenger comfort. I happened to travel on both the Hitachi 800 and the Siemens 700 trains on this journey and only through regular exercise has a visit to the osteopath been avoided. But it is not only the uncomfortable seats on these trains that mar the passenger experience. It is the fact that human contact from railway staff has been all but removed from the on board experience. Yes, there were buffets on the Bristol and on the first leg of the Bristol journey to Brighton but they came through the train rarely and no one checked my ticket except a special inspection on the Southern service. Even then it was not a proper check as by then I had actually lost the ticket covering that portion of the journey but that is by the by. The real problem is there is no TLC, no one to advise passengers on where to change, no explanation about why trains have stopped in the middle of nowhere, no friendly welcome – nothing just a rat tat tat of specious announcements and warnings about what is not allowed.
And it those announcements which is my beef number three, with which regular readers of this column will already be familiar. The plethora of announcements which are nearly all automatic and therefore sometimes quite wrong makes it impossible to relax, something my wife pointed out as she was trying to read her book. On the Southern service between Fareham and Brighton, where there are numerous stops a couple of miles apart, it became an almost continuous cacophony which sometimes had to be interrupted as there was time enough between stations for them to be completed. The full list of stations at every stop is far more information than anyone needs – why not just announce the next station and leave it at that. And while ‘see it, say it, sorted’ has become less frequent, it is still maddeningly frequent. Moreover, what is the point of frequent announcements to the effect that ‘the latest regulations governing Covid should be followed’. Since no one has any idea what these ever-changing rules are, there is no point telling people that. My prize for the most useless announcement is on Thameslink where they say something to the effect that Oyster cards are only useable at some stations, check the website to see if they apply to your journey. Well, gee thanks.
All of this is about taking the personal service away from rail travel. As my accompanying piece emphasises, rail travel is special and has many advantages over other modes but some of those are lost if the experience becomes uncomfortable or unpleasant. And it seems many in the industry are working hard to ensure that people are discouraged from travelling by rail as much as possible, which brings me to beef number four. How can the unions – or more specifically the RMT – possibly think this is a good time to exert a bit of industrial muscle – or more precisely willy-wagging- and indulge in strikes both on the national railway and the London Underground. These two disputes respectively over the role of guards and changes to the roster of Underground drivers to obviate the need for special night time drivers are not really issues on which to go to the wall. After all, there are going to be far more pressing issues when the cuts being imposed by the Treasury start to kick in and that is the time when the unions might well garner considerable public support for their cause. Yet, by going on strike over relatively trivial matters which has even angered their fellow rail unions they are losing any hope of future public goodwill – and ultimately it is that which can win them industrial disputes.
Having knocked the unions, now beef number five is about the crazy system that is emerging as the new structure of the railways, which as ever is being driven by ideology rather than practicality. The retention of the private sector to run trains is going to ensure that many of the complexities of the present system will remain. I have talked to several senior people about this and they are agreed that the system should either be wholly privatised or wholly nationalised. I, of course, hold to the latter view as I see no sense in keeping the private sector involved in a very limited way that offers no opportunity for innovation or risk-taking. I do not accept the argument, set out by many opponents, that the railways need a financial incentive to collect fares and run a decent service. This the neoliberal ethic at its worst – only money and profits are important, and they have to be the policeman for all aspects of service.
The obsession with ensuring the private sector has a role in a structure that does not allow it any freedom is a recipe for increased costs and poor performance. Elsewhere, local authorities, some even Tory, are taking back services in house in recognition of the fact that outsourcing is not always the most efficient way of doing things. You read it here first, but the hybrid system being created will lead to vast sums of money still being wasted over delay attribution, complex contracts, failure to make savings through co-ordinated purchasing and much more.
I would like to conclude, as Phil Haigh valiantly tried to do in the previous issue, that there are sunny uplands ahead. I hope to be proved wrong but I can’t see any with this dire combination of ideological obsessions combined with Treasury orthodoxy and a proposed structure that does not allow the railways to make crucial decisions independent of short term-government strictures.
The wonders of rail travel
I was asked by the Daily Telegraph to write a piece about the fact that people are now often choosing a long train journey as opposed to a short plane trip when travelling around Europe. It made me realise that there is still an enduring affection for the railways, something which seems to have been forgotten in the rush for efficiency, speed and an obsession with preventing even the smallest safety risk.
Sure, many rail journeys are purely functional and a means to get from A to B, but with the new necessary emphasis on leisure travel, the wider aspects of service need to considered. Mark Rand of the Friends of the Settle Carlisle Line put it well in a recent Rail article stressing that the service on the line was wholly inappropriate for what should be England’s best train route. Apart from the odd initiative such as on the Mallaig line, there seems to be no understanding in the commercial railway of the way that making rail travel pleasant can be a great attraction and, indeed, a money spinner. These journeys can then be used as a way of getting people to travel by rail more generally, not least with the sort of advertising and posters that were once commonplace on the railways. We need to encourage people to love the railways again. Working out ways of tapping this market – which is by no means negligible – could be an early task for the forthcoming Great British Railways.