I’m delighted that Grant Shapps is on the case of the incessant noise that ensures there is never any chance of a bit of shuteye on a train these days. We all know the worst culprit: hearing numerous repeats of ‘See it, say it, sorted’ has probably driven more passengers to violence and given more people heart attacks than have ever texted 61016 as a result of hearing it.
Our transport secretary thought this was such a burning issue that he even commissioned a video for the campaign starring, euh, Grant Shapps. Aside from the fact that this may be one of his last actions as Transport Secretary given that Boris Johnson’s successor is likely to choose a very different group of people for their Cabinet, this does beg questions about his sense of priorities.
Don’t get me wrong. I have long moaned – indeed in this column and in other publications – about the ridiculous number of announcements on some services – though noticeably not on some others, which belies the argument that they are necessary and mandated by the Department. But Shapps’s very intervention exposes a deep contradiction at the heart of the current structure of the railways and, indeed, suggests that this will not be resolved in its future incarnation with Great British Railway – namely, why does the Transport Secretary make decisions about the mundane issue of rail announcements. Surely he has better things to do and others lower down the food chain should make those decisions
And that’s the point. I don’t believe Shapps has any more interest in rail announcements than in the biology of hippopotamus dung but his video did the trick. For a couple of days lots of people were talking about it and there was widespread coverage in the media when, in fact, there are rather more important issues on the railways, such as, just to name one, the severe cuts to the timetable being experienced on some routes and the almost intractable problem of how to get people back on to the railways, not least in order to reduce the £17bn subsidy that they received last year. Much as I hate the announcements, I suspect that very few people decide not to travel by rail because there are too many of them.
The Office of Road and Rail also managed to get in the ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ act a couple of weeks ago with its latest effort on how to sort out the railways which is –wait for it – to ensure there is ‘more competition for driver psychometric assessments’. It explains in a press release that the Rail Assessment Centre Forum (no, I had not heard of it either) has not been sufficiently open to new members. It is responsible for ensuring ‘that the psychometric assessment process for the recruitment and monitoring of train drivers is applied correctly across the industry’ and has 13 members – principally passenger and freight operators but apparently has no formal process to allow new companies to join. I reckon, optimistically that this is possibly the 365th most important issue facing the rail industry and rather suggests that the ORR is scrabbling about to find things for its staff to do. Hopefully those drawing up plans for Great British Railways will notice that there are some underemployed staff at the ORR.
Perhaps the ORR could turn its attention to the rather more pressing matter of how to get people back on rail. Two years into the pandemic, we await any coherent response from either the industry or the government about how to bring people back. Reading the proofs of my forthcoming book on British Rail, I was struck at how commercially minded it was in its final years. The most innovative manager of his generation, Chris Green successively introduced numerous ways of attracting more people to use the railways successively on ScotRail – a name he devised – and particularly on Network SouthEast. On Scotrail he changed timings so that trains into Scotland connected with services from London and introduced a comprehensive series of changes because coach services had just been deregulated. He had a great response to this perceived threat: ‘We reckoned it was fight or flee, and we decided to fight. The Scottish Office were more intent on improving roads and bridges, so realised we needed modern trains, new locos, faster journey times and we slashed fares, with the sort of special offer the coach companies were making: some £1 fares Glasgow to Inverness and an overnight train to London for a fiver.’
Then when he moved south, he introduced the Capitalcard, the predecessor to the Travelcard which could be used on both Underground and British Rail services at off peak times. Although it was an innovation that the British Railways Board had long sought, the Department of (as it was then) Transport, under pressure from the Treasury had long resisted this obvious innovation through fear that it would lose income for the railway. Of course, the opposite proved true as making travel easier and cheaper stimulated such a massive increase in passenger numbers that Network SouthEast broke even, after years of requiring hundreds of millions in subsidy.
The lesson is all too plain. The railway needs a similar stimulus today and the obvious solution is a national rail card, purchasable by anyone, to replace the ridiculous range of existing cards which in effect only excludes the able bodied between 30 and 60 travelling alone. As Railfuture (of which I am honorary president) which has long campaigned for this puts it, ‘A National Railcard could fill the gap and have the extra benefit of absorbing some of the existing railcards and simplifying the rules.
Railfuture refers to research carried out in 2003 that showed three million people would have bought the card if it cost £30 and offered a 50 per cent discount. This is probably now an underestimate. Of course a few leisure travellers paying full whack at the moment would benefit, but the idea is to create a railway-using habit among for a wide number of people not currently benefitting from any discounts. The railway is losing the certainty of the season ticket income which has been its bedrock almost ever since the Liverpool & Manchester started running in 1830 as current levels are around 35 per cent of pre-Covid. This income is not coming back and therefore the railway needs to attract a new source of faithful clients and regular users. Look at, for example, Ryanair, which is slashing fares to get people back in the air.
There are little things that would help, too. A friend of mine just rang as I was writing this piece bemoaning the fact that his train from Skipton to Kirkby Stephen had been replaced by a bus at short notice and it meant he had to wait an hour and a half to the next train, ruining his ride for the day. The problem was that he had a bike with him and there is a total ban on cycles being taken on bus replacement services. Bfut why? Most of the coaches brought in to replace train services have copious amounts of space underneath where people’s baggage is stored. There is invariably room for a couple of bikes (20 years ago I was stuck at a station in the middle of the night 15 miles from my destination with a bike and fortunately the driver relented and put my cycle in the boot of the near empty bus.) The Williams Shapps report talks about making bike travel by train easier, but talks about future train fleets whereas measures such as this can be implemented very quickly.
Indeed, that is the message that needs to be conveyed across the board. It’s no good waiting for the advent of legislation and Great British Railways. The industry and the government needs to act quickly to save the railway, and the present cuts to the timetable and other service reductions will only deter people from using it. As in the heyday of British Rail when the likes of Chris Green were given a free hand, boosting revenue must be at the heart of rail policy.
Think of the drivers
ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, is relaunching its initiative to improve the environment in which its members work. In particular, it is worried about the effect that hot or draughty or badly designed drivers’ cabs may have on safety. In a survey of its members, a staggering 93 per cent of respondents said that stuffy cabs on hot days had affected their ability to concentrate. Oddly, there is no law in the UK setting the maximum temperature suitable for working conditions.
This is one of those forgotten areas where safety can be compromised but no one is focussing properly on the risk. While most modern trains have a much better working environment for drivers, ASLEF points out that not much thought has gone into improving the cabs of refurbished stock. Simon Weller, the assistant general secretary, told Rail: ‘When trains are refurbished, a lot of money goes into improving the environment for passengers but drivers’ cabs have, in the past, been forgotten’. He points to the 319 stock cascaded away from Thameslink and vastly improved but the cabs, which were overheating and so poorly designed that they gave drivers backache and other problems, have barely been touched. As Weller put it, ‘drivers need to work in conditions where they can concentrate and fit for purpose’.
The key, he says, is involving the unions early on in the design process. While this has happened more recently, this type of consultation has not been built into the structure of the industry. Therefore errors as with the windscreens of the Hitachi trains ordered for Scotrail a few years ago that did not allow the driver to see the signals properly would never have happened. Another little task for Great British Railways.