I have been inundated with responses to my column in the last issue bemoaning the fact that levels service are deteriorating rapidly in the rail industry. The spread of the ‘Nobody Gives A Damn’ (NGAD) railway has, indeed, been confirmed by many readers, including current and past railwaymen and women.
It is very heartening that none of the respondents has interpreted my article as a general criticism of railway workers, most of whom are doing their best in trying circumstances. But it cannot be ignored that there are examples of railway staff who do not seem motivated to provide a good service. I have been given some shocking examples. One driver told me how, arriving at an intermediate stop, the doors had not been opened for quite a while and when he went to investigate, he discovered that the senior conductor had put his feet up and was snoring away. Several readers have pointed out that at time it is impossible to pay for travel, as there are no functioning ticket machines and no one checking the tickets on trains. To be fair, other readers have reported examples of staff going that extra mile to help people or to keep passengers appraised of delays and connections.
Another writer, himself a former conductor, is bemused to find very different standards, even within the same company. He often travels on XC from Birmingham to Nottingham, but also sometimes to Burton and Derby. He reports ‘Rarely on these journeys does anyone come through to check tickets or show themselves in any way, remaining in the back cab except for train despatch’. Yet, as he points out, the onboard staff on the long distance XC services are excellent and constantly going up and down the train checking tickets and helping passengers.
Another driver reckons that the deterioration is due to the lack of experienced staff. He says: ‘You are correct, most railwaymen and women cannot understand what is going on. Something is afoot
I have seen incompetence in the industry many times before, but what is happening now goes beyond that, almost as if there is a big plan to run the railway down.’
He goes on: ‘I have seen incompetence in the industry many times before, but what is happening now goes beyond that, almost as if there is a big plan to run the railway down: trains cancelled due to lack of train crew, when a driver and guard are sat in the messroom, and train is sitting in a depot idle [details withheld to ensure for anonymity]. Trains cancelled at short notice, with no help for the passengers, and staff not given advice from control as to how to get people to their destinations, which is totally embarrassing for railway staff’. The ultimate expression of that was, of course, the now famous incident where passengers were left locked into Oxenholme station because all the staff had left.
My correspondent’s explanation is that he has seen ‘experienced staff being lost over the years, or sometimes even pushed out, or recruitment actively weighted against people from within the railway in favour of people who aren’t “tainted” in the eyes of those above, resulting in a workforce who can’t run the railway that they have inherited’.
He adds that he does ‘give a damn’. However, quite rightly, as with all those who have written to me, he recognised that my criticism is aimed at the very top, particularly at the now fortunately departed transport secretary Grant Shapps who, as his press office famously once told my editor Nigel Harris, ‘Grant does not do railways,. Didn’t seem to do much else, either, except perform in the most ludicrous self-service videos. I know, too, that there are people in the Department for Transport who are desperately worried about the situation, as are some train operating managers. But the culture of NGAD is being fed by a combination of poor management, hostile ministerial statements and financial constraints. The Treasury attitude of merely counting the cost of inputs and never caring about outputs, such as the quality of the product or the need to attract new customers is deeply damaging to railways.
Given Shapps’ contempt for the railways, it is greatly welcome that a new transport secretary, Anne Marie Trevelyan, has come on board, but she faces an unenviable task. As with many new ministers, she does not appear to have any previous relevant experience though she was, for a short time, minister of state (the second tier) for ‘business, energy and clean growth’ (whatever that means) which may have familiarised her with some of the issues. From her record, she appears to be a hardline Brexiteer on the Right of the party with quite possibly little sympathy for the railways.
However, I am told she has a reputation as a ‘listener’ which she will need to be to understand the subtleties of the transport job. As I have mentioned many times before, transport ministers generally fall into two categories favouring either road or rail. Shapps was an exception in having no interest in anything other than general aviation. The problem for an inexperienced newcomer like Trevelyan is that roads appear to be a nice simple issue – you just spend money on building more which supposedly reduces congestion – while railways are intensely complicated not least because they are partly commercial. Whereas roads clearly have to be paid out of general taxation – although that will have to change as more electric cars replace gas-guzzling and therefore taxpaying internal combustion engine vehicles – support for rail is seen as an optional subsidy.
Coming new to the job, therefore, Trevelyan will face lobbying from the likes of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Taxpayers’ Alliance, whose supporters are already advising Liz Truss. Moreover, the new Prime Minister has already talked up the need for new strike breaking legislation in the form of requirements for railworkers to provide a minimum service during any industrial action.
Taking this type of hardline approach will only exacerbate the NGAD feeling throughout the industry. Shapps refused to engage with the unions and claimed that the industrial disputes were nothing to do with him, despite controlling the purse strings. The new Transport Secretary needs, instead, to get involved. Without that, things will undoubtedly deteriorate further, leading to lasting damage to the industry we all want to succeed.
Industrial relations are not, of course, the only issues on her plate. The industry is in the throes of a restructuring that seems to have stalled because of delays in drawing up the legislation. I now understand that there may be no Transport Bill in the current session. Yet some 200 civil servants and consultants are apparently working on the new structure which is set to be as complex as the existing one because of the insistence that all the operations should be contracted out to the private sector. Ideology rules OK in Whitehall.
Ms Trevelyan, therefore, inherits a mess – a half baked new structure that no one thinks is the optimum solution. Even some arch supporters of privatisation would rather see a simplified nationalisation rather than the mess that those 200 hardworking bureaucrats are trying to devise. So here’s a bit of advice i am sure she will not take – simply redeploy the lot of them, merge Network Rail with the train operators, call it British Railways, give it a set budget, and then let Andrew Haines and his colleagues get on with it. Simples.
Royal train shame
The decision not to use the Royal Train to take the Queen’s body from Scotland to London has opened up a whole hornet’s nest. I was asked to write a piece for The Spectator (available on my website www.christianwolmar.co.uk) and the ensuing twitter debate raged on for days afterwards. The ostensible reasons for the change in plan from the information in the 2017 leak of the Operation London Bridge which specifically mentioned use of the Royal Train is that there are security and safety issues. But that has always been the case. You only have to look at footage of previous railway corteges, such as for Winston Churchill or Robert Kennedy to see that they attract crowds and they will need policing.
In the past, that has been dealt with and the risk, which is mainly to foolhardy photographers, has been accepted. Now, it seems, officialdom is no longer prepared to accept that risk. One of the tweeters in response to my article several times stressed that there might be a fatality as a result of using the train and therefore the risk was unacceptable. But as I pointed out, that effectively means the only safe option for all of us is to stay at home and never, for example, use a step ladder or take a shower, two well known home based dangers.
The Twitter responders also kept on mentioning that the crowds attracted by the Flying Scotsman often resulted in trespass. But that is to miss the point. First, they can be policed and secondly, this is not about a trainspotting attraction, but about a historic journey of a dead monarch, a very different matter.
Railways, as I mentioned in The Spectator, are dependent on a high level of societal trust. They are easy to interfere with or even sabotage, but by and large this does not happen. Are the authorities suggesting that the existence of this level of trust can no longer be relied upon? If so, the rail industry may as well pack up and cease functioning.