In the columns I write for Rail magazine, I have developed the concept of the Nobody Gives a Damn railway. The idea has rather taken off and my inbox is full of examples sent in by disgruntled passengers.
The idea for NGAD emerged when I discovered that the government was pressing train operators to save a few bob by scrapping Wifi for passengers. This was clearly ridiculous, a way seemingly of chasing people off the railways if they needed an internet connection. Then this bad idea was compounded by the more far reaching plan to close nearly 1,000 ticket offices across the country. The arguments are well-rehearsed and excellently set out by Railfuture in its 101 questions about the plan. All this is so random. There may well be an argument about closing some offices and putting more staff in front of the glass, but only once the unbelievably complex fares system has been sorted out and, most importantly, an easy and single website for buying all tickets and dealing with complex enquiries has been set up. We are a long way from that.
Now there is another threat to train travel. I was on a Lumo train from Glasgow to London in early September when, while waiting to leave, there was an announcement that if you did not have a reservation, you should get off the train. As it was a strike day, the train was pretty full though as it turned out, there were seats left empty all the way to London. And the announcement clearly went against the terms and conditions that bind Lumo and other operators. There was something of a Twitter storm and eventually Lumo’s boss Martijn Gilbert came on the site to admit that the guard should not have made that announcement. But this is part of a trend towards reservation only long distance travel that goes against the long established principle of a walk-on railway.
Let me stress that the railway still has plenty of dedicated employees and managers who go out of their way to make lives better for passengers. There is no shortage of examples, notably and ironically, in booking offices where the personnel are invariably helpful and positive. What I worry about, however, is the overall feel of the railway, its lack of welcome and at times even hostility for those using it. That culture does not necessarily huge dollops of cash to change. It is about attitude. A good example is my beloved football club QPR. A succession of managerial departures together with a bunch of players who seemed disinterested nearly cost the team relegation last year. There was no money to buy any but a few free agents and rejects, and yet within a few weeks the manager, Gareth Ainsworth, has instilled a completely different culture. They may not be winning every game but one can see from the efforts on the pitch that the team are trying their damndest and the fans have responded, cheering where they once booed.
That’s what we need to see from the railways. Yes we know that there is shortage of money for investment, that the infrastructure is creaking and ministers area tinkering with the network in a totally incoherent way. But if every time there is a delay or a mishap, the staff give clear explanations, help people who are confused and work to make sure everyone gets to their destination, then the fact that the industry is in crisis can be forgotten. So train operators need to stop making up ridiculous rules, the unions should do everything in their power to try to resolve disputes and ministers should stop making daft decisions that clearly do not make sense. And there should never be a NGAD attitude.