Rail 965: All hail the ‘Nobody gives a Damn’ railway

Christian Wolmar


Let me introduce you to the NGAD Railway. Or you may have encountered it already if you know its full name, Nobody Gives a damn Railway. Over the past few weeks, this predatory organisation has taken over swathes of the rail network and unless it can be stopped, the takeover may soon be complete.

Let me offer a few examples, and then we can look at the brains behind this evil empire. The pervasive influence of this organisation can be felt across the network when it comes to checking tickets. I have made journeys up and down both East and West Coast Mainlines recently and not been troubled to show my ticket. The same happened on Greater Anglia on the local service to Ipswich. On the East Coast, I travelled all the way from Alnmouth to London with no sight of a guard. In fact my ticket was only valid from Newcastle and I was happy to pay the supplement, but was never given the chance – and there is just so much effort I am prepare to put in to provide a few bob to the ailing railway.

A young friend, however, confessed to rather more systematic fare dodging thanks to this lack of concern over checking tickets. He told me that he regularly buys an electronic off peak return between London and Manchester and since it is never scanned, he simply claims a refund. He cannot be the only one.

And just as I was writing this piece, another example of the NGAD railway pop. Sitting at Waterloo for half an hour, the automatic announcements were failing. Every time they would start off ‘The train at platform…..’ and then abruptly stop. This went on for all the time I was there with no human intervention, either to make the announcements or to turn off the damn PA system. Was there no one in the control room? Or had they not heard what was going on? Or was there just a collective shrug of the shoulders? Then, returning 6 hours later, the truncated messages were still blaring out, with no one having bothered to stop them or repair the system.

Avanti, the franchise holder for the West Coast is clearly the greatest exponent of the NGAD philosophy and is way ahead of any other operator when it comes to dysfunctionality – so much so that I’ve been told even the Department for Transport is concerned. Avanti is now running less than half its normal timetable on the basis that those feckless drivers don’t want to work on their rest days. Yet, they are not obliged to do so and it is an issue that has been long sorted out by several other operators. One of my Twitter followers set out the delights of Avanti (in retrospect, perhaps Indietro might have been a better name) in addition to service cuts: no advance booking until a couple of days before travel, seats double booked, massive overcrowding, absence of first class, trains terminated short ….and so on.

There are several other clear influences of the NGAD philosophy affecting the operation of the railway. While in the past I may have complained numerous times about the repetition of inane automated announcements up to 20 times on a journey – ‘see it, say it, sorted’ must be the world’s least favourite slogan – I have now gone on whole journeys where there is absolutely no communication from any human being. Yet, with fuel prices soaring and leisure travel on rail nearly reaching pre Covid levels, there are many new users of the railway who need a bit of help and tlc to encourage them to come back.

Then there are the ‘out of use’ toilets, the non-functioning air conditioning and the occasional door malfunction, all testimony to the malevolent efforts of NGAD. All these problems are compounded when there is a lack of staff to help out and explain. And catering is a thing of the past on many lines. Waterloo – Exeter is an obvious example of a journey long enough to require a service, but since Covid it has disappeared.



I am loath is to criticise individual staff members. I know of dozens of railway people who are doing the best in trying circumstances. But there are some who have definitely signed up to NGAD Railway lock, stock and barrel like the ticket clerk who refused to recognise my Railcard – which could not be downloaded on my new phone – even though I showed her the receipt for it. And worse, she said ‘buy your ticket from a machine, it will not check’.

However, it is not difficult for managers, who are paid more than them, to ensure that ticket checks are carried out, that the right announcements are made and that all the other things such as working toilets and a trolley service that make a journey bearable are functioning. Do they ever travel incognito – as Christopher Garnett the former head of GNER used to regularly – to check on the staff and sample their own product?

Moreover, it is difficult not to be concerned that some in the rail unions are part of the NGAD plot. I recognise that they have legitimate complains, that wages have not risen since before the pandemic and that the industrial action has very wide support among the workforce. I respect, too, their right to strike. However, the frequency of the strikes, and the understandable and all too successful aim to create as much chaos as possible, is deeply damaging to the long term interests of the railway and, consequently, to their members. Surely, a pause for thought as to how to proceed, perhaps waiting for a more emollient transport secretary than the present incumbent, might be in order?

Across the industry, the NGAD ethic is gaining a toehold. For example, the Office of Road and Rail which employs a staggering 330 people and is supposed to stimulate improvements on the railway spends its time and vast resources with its budget of £30m on such arcane matters as whether there is sufficient competition on access to driver training computers and on establishing that the ‘HS2 infrastructure manager levy investment recovery charge’. Well thank Christ for that, I was having sleepless nights over that issue but are there not just rather more pressing issues for a well-funded regulator – like what the f*** is happening to the collapsing railway? Has the ORR not noticed that Avanti is imploding?

Then there is the Rail Delivery Group, which is about to lose a chunk of itself, rather like octopuses lose limbs but somehow regain them. Rather than a graceful demise, the RDG will keep buggering on as it has certain statutory roles while some of the rest of the industry will be represented by Rail Partners. Both seemed to be more focussed on ensuring there is a role for them and the private sector in the industry after the creation of Great British Railways, rather than considering the big issues of service quality and the purpose of the railway in a world where daily commuting is no longer the bread and butter of the system.

  All this is happening while the possible future of Great British Railways (can we drop the Great now that Boris Johnson is on his way out?) is uncertain. So, fortunately is the future of the mastermind behind NGAD, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. He is the one presiding over this chaos, and refusing to discharge his responsibilities in relation to the operators and the unios. Covering his ears, eyes and mouth, and shouting ‘nothing to do with me guv’ is not a responsible approach from a Transport Secretary. And if you have any doubt about whether he is doing this on purpose, just look at his effort to wind up the unions with talk of driverless trains, agency staff and militant workers’. This is not a man who wants to see things sorted out (rather like Tony Blair never wanted a peaceful solution in Iraq).  Here is a man so ignorant of the railways that he insisted in a BBC interview that there were three trains per hour between London and Manchester, and seemed to misunderstand what a ‘direct train’ meant.

One of Liz Truss’s slogan has been to ‘get things done’.  Well, the railways about which she has shown little interest certainly need things doing starting with an end to the NGAD culture – but I doubt she is the person to do them.



Is Abellio leading the pack?

The Wolmar question used to be ‘What is franchising for?’ but clearly there now needs to be a new one. And the obvious question to ask now, is ‘What are management contracts for?’. The issue is pertinent because in a remarkable turnaround with undue haste, Abellio, aka Dutch Railways, has decided to pull out of the British transport industry. Instead, the managing director of Abellio, Dominic Booth, who has worked for the company since 2007, is leading a management buy out team to take over both the company’s bus and train operations.

Of course this is subject to approval from all sorts of bodies, notably the Department for Transport which will take over the running of the company’s three franchises if the deal does not go through. However, there is much uncertainty and the accompanying press release begs many more questions than it answers, such as why, why now, and what are the financial arrangements.

The company line is that NS, Dutch Railways, its nose bloodied by being booted off Scotrail, is eager to concentrate on matters at home especially given the extra complexities caused by Brexit. Apparently behind the scenes discussions have been taking place with Booth for a year but even so the announcement seemed rushed and underprepared. New contracts had been agreed for Greater Anglia and West Midlands under the new arrangements with the Department for Transport, and therefore it seems strange that NS was so eager to depart the scene.

I have always wondered whether many companies would be happy to make a small margin on the new type of contract, give that under the previous system, a well-calculated bid could prove enormously lucrative.If others pull out, what price that the new system with GBR letting contracts throughout the network will ever see the light of day. As I keep on reiterating, rather than playing at capitalism and trying to ensure the private sector has a role, why not simply integrate the whole business, and operate it largely as happened under BR. Perhaps, then, most of the 300 people working at ORR, mentioned in the adjoining piece could be ‘let go’. Just a thought.

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