Another nice mess you’ve gotten into

IN the past six weeks we’ve seen a shambolic start to the new summer timetable with thousands of passengers unable to travel because of a lack of trained drivers, overcrowded services, while others were written out of a hastily revised timetable.

The Lake District branch to Windermere, a major tourist area at this time of year, was left bereft of train services because of timetable and driver-training issues, resulting in private train operator West Coast Railways coming to the rescue.

Timetable mayhem at Manchester Piccadilly. PHIL MARSH

The East Coast franchise has been taken over by the Government-created London North Eastern Railway after Stagecoach hit financial problems with the franchise, and it has also emerged TransPennine can’t make ends meet, estimating it will lose £106million by the end of the current term. Other franchises are also having problems meeting predicted passenger numbers, revenue and growth forecasts on which their bids were based.

The introduction of new trains is running late, and major infrastructure projects have still not been completed. HS2 costs continue to cause headaches, and passenger numbers have seen their biggest fall for 25 years. Could it get any worse?

Ongoing strikes have seen passengers effectively lose their jobs or being forced to change them because of late and cancelled services.

Rail staff have been verbally and physically abused, leading to some calling in sick to avoid confrontation with the public. Drivers in some companies are demoralised at the nature of shift patterns often because of the need for rest day working, while management struggles to
manage effectively.

One insider told me experienced staff are looking to leave the industry, with a number seeking early retirement because they’ve had enough. The current driver shortage (which leads to rest day workings or cancellations) is not helped by drivers leaving for better pay and conditions at other operators, and further compounded by the fact a recruitment and training process can take 12 months. Never before, in almost 25 years of franchising, have there been so many problems, and the rail industry really has got itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.

While leaving aside the (misplaced) calls for Nationalisation (Network Rail is already a Government department and franchise terms are set out and overseen by the DfT), the time has come to review how railways are financed and managed.

Such a move also means ensuring the right number of staff for the trains scheduled, not a reliance wholly on rest day working, as these are usually the first casualty in a union dispute.

Management contracts for a fixed fee, such
as GTR, where the DfT is pulling all the strings, don’t appear to be the answer either, so are concessions, of the type Transport for London uses for London Overground and Docklands Light Railway, the way forward?

I believe it’s time to take a step back and not only rethink the franchising model and how improvements can be achieved, but also look at introducing a greater element of competition on routes where the majority of passengers have no choice.

As comic genius Oliver Hardy famously said… “here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”, which seems to sum up the recent few weeks on
the railways.

But where do you think the problems lie and what do you think should be done to make improvements? Write and let me know, but please keep letters succinct as possible.

Recognising our electric heritage

News that a number of electric multiple units are at last in undercover storage is welcome. But the story should not end there.

EMUs have provided a vital role in the
day-to-day movement of millions of passengers since the early-20th century, yet overall, electric traction is woefully under represented in the National Collection.

While units such as the Merseyrail Class 503 and the 4-SUB have been subject to many years of open air storage, at least they’ve been saved from scrap and are in dry storage, and work to conserve and restore them can begin.

With some units from the former Electric Railway Museum under the custodianship of the Heritage Electric Trains Trust, there is growing optimism that through grants, donations and apprentice schemes and the like, one day a heritage EMU will back working on the national network again – and it can’t come soon enough.

Chris Milner, Editor

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