Radical reform for operators and passengers cannot come soon enough

IT’S been another summer of discontent for rail passengers.

Strikes because of industrial disputes over driver-only operation are still affecting four train operators.

Timetables remain in a mess on several routes, with passengers having to wait up to an hour for a through train to their destination.

Electrification projects still lag behind schedule.

Cancellations because of a lack of train-rostered crews or lack of route knowledge remain all too common.

Passengers are also suffering from late notification of engineering work – sometimes giving less than 24 hours notice that their journey will be diverted or disrupted.

The closure of London Euston for three consecutive weekends had a knock-on effect. With no congestion-busting 15-car ‘Voyager’ trains from Birmingham New Street, passengers were forced to walk from New Street to Moor Street station to catch alternative services to London.

A lineside fire closed the Midland Main Line for six hours on August 19, curtailing services to St Pancras – a situation compounded as LNER was at full capacity handling extra passengers as a result of the Euston closure, so could not accept those displaced from East Midlands Trains.

Insular nature

Rustling up replacement coaches is proving more difficult, and other than the occasional diversion via Lincoln and Sleaford or Ely and Cambridge, when there is an incident on the East Coast Main Line, the insular nature of each train operator means drivers’ route knowledge over many diversionary routes – such as the Settle-Carlisle, when the West Coast Main Line is closed between Preston and Carlisle – has tended to lapse; but I fully understand why.

Northern has suffered badly this summer because of on-going strikes and insufficient drivers ‘route-learned’ to cover the planned new timetable, as well as overcrowding issues and a shortage of crews on Sundays. This view at Oxenhope Lake District station on August 5 of Class 156 No. 156487 shows a passenger with large case – plus many others with cases – boarding the 11.19 to Windermere. ALISDAIR ANDERSON

Keeping route knowledge up-to-date is a costly, time-consuming process and train operators see rail replacement buses as the cheapest option.

However, is that really the best option for passengers who are still being asked to pay the same fare as if the train was running normally?

Passengers placed on rail replacement services are heavily inconvenienced and endure considerably longer journey times. Coach drivers are not always familiar with the route and there is a lack of refreshment and toilet facilities, yet there is no discount for the additional disruption.

Wrong message

So, on top of all these problems, the Government ‘kicks’ the passengers yet again, forcing fares up by 3.2% from next January rather than saying “hey, we know many of you have had a very difficult time, so we will freeze fares for 12 months or until the problems are solved”.

Actions like this send out the wrong message: one of an uncaring industry led by a greedy Government. I know from stories on my Twitter feed how front line staff go the extra mile to help passengers in difficulties, so it was good to hear the Rail Delivery Group advocating a ‘once-in-a-generation reform’ of how we run our railways.

Given the high fares passengers now have to pay, this reform – along with a ticket and fares reform –- can’t come soon enough.

I only hope the mandarins in the DfT are receptive to any new ideas and innovation, but more crucially can also take a step back and stop tinkering with the day-to-day minutiae of franchises and leave the railway to be run by those who know what they are doing.

Chris Milner, Editor

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