MESSAGE TO MR GRAYLING: Passengers need improvement now – not in two years’ time

THE announcement that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has ordered a Rail Review comes as no surprise. It’s been very much overdue, given the increasing list of problems affecting passengers.

The Transport Select Committee (TSC) announced back in April – based upon evidence given in February – that in its view the franchising model was ‘broken’ so readers will probably ask why it has taken so long to see some action.

The trigger was undoubtedly the shambolic May timetable change, which occurred three weeks after the TSC report, and on which the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has just reported.

Passengers suffering disruption to train services will not see any benefits from the Government’s ‘root-and-branch’ review of the rail industry until at least 2020.

The ORR has pointed the finger at the industry, collectively blaming Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway, Northern and the Department for Transport, as well as admitting – as regulator – it also made mistakes.

In previous editorials, I’ve questioned whether franchising is still fit for purpose almost 25 years after it was conceived and poorly implemented.

So are changes on the horizon?

Leaving aside the failure of the Virgin East Coast franchise and delays in completing infrastructure changes and in introducing and approving new trains, another concerning problem is emerging – one of not enough bidders to create real competition for rail franchises.

Chris Grayling says this review will leave ‘no stone unturned’ and will make recommendations for the future. That’s a bold and courageous statement knowing how slow the rail industry can be to accept change and adapt, yet it seems nothing will be done to pacify beleaguered passengers in the meantime.

Remember the plan to trial a change in fares and eliminate split ticketing? It never happened because the industry wanted any fare changes to be ‘revenue neutral’, and no industry agreement could be reached.

With a past record of broken promises and inaction, Mr Grayling says reforms will be implemented from 2020.

Given the cancellation of electrification schemes, over-reliance on bi-mode trains, and the industry still without a plan on how to dispose of so many old vehicles in a safe manner, I simply do not share Mr Grayling’s belief. Forgive the cynical old hack in me thinking it will get worse before it gets better.

Passengers have suffered enough of overcrowding, delays and cancellations on a daily basis. Rightly, they will want to see some tangible improvements now, not in two years’ time.

Building skills for the future

WITH railway preservation closing in on the 60-year mark, it is becoming vitally important the skills developed by Victorian and Edwardian railway engineers are passed down to successive generations.

Boiler repairs, carriage repairs and infrastructure maintenance are some of the skills, but from more recent times come the techniques needed to repair and maintain diesel locos and multiple units. You can’t plug in a computer to address these problems and find out where the fault is!

Unless heritage skills are passed on to younger people, generation after generation, they will be lost, and the preservation movement could wither away.

Also vital in supporting the railways are companies that can manufacture wheelsets, brake parts, and springs, and maintain a good availability of spare parts. Like all such tasks, it needs people with the requisite skills.

Some years ago, the Severn Valley Railway set up the Heritage Skills Training Academy in a bid to future-proof specialist railway repair skills. Therefore I am delighted to announce Mortons Media Group – publishers of The RM, Heritage Railway and Rail Express – is sponsoring the academy, and in the first of a regular column, one of the apprentices will explain about his or her work (see p51).

It is also hoped the column will be a source of encouragement for other young people to become involved with railway preservation as a volunteer, apprentice or employee.

Chris Milner, Editor

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