M ornings used to go like clockwork for Paul Taylor. The database manager from Stockport, England, could count on getting to work on time every morning, and getting home by 5.45 every evening.
“Since Northern changed the timetables on May 20, there are only two trains to Alderley Edge via Manchester Picadilly in the morning rush hour, and two in the evening,” he tells Weekend Review at the Manchester rail hub. “Northern has completely abandoned Stockport during the rest of the day.”
Thankfully, he can work flexible hours.
“Junior members of staff aren’t so lucky,” he says. “Some of them are an hour late every day since the new train timetables came into effect and management is losing patience. But it’s not their fault. It’s chaos right now and it’s not getting any better.”
What’s more, the sorry state of Britain’s railways isn’t just confined to the north.
Claire Lamb from Surrey, to the south of London, says her commute to London Bridge has become a “horrendous ordeal” since the new timetables took effect. Her local station is no longer served by a Thameslink service to London Bridge, and she now must drive 20 minutes on a bury road to another station, then change at East Croydon to get to her destination. She says she has to leave her 13-year-old son at home alone in the morning as she heads off earlier to work — and gets home later.
Owing to this crisis, heads of the train companies are beginning to roll.
On June 15, the boss of Southern rail parent company Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) Charles Horton resigned over the botched train timetables.
“I recognise that passengers have been hugely frustrated at the significant disruption caused by the introduction of new timetables,” he said. Govia, however, had faced months of industrial action as unions railed against driver-only trains on some of England’s busiest commuter routes.
“It is currently a bad time to be a train passenger in the United Kingdom as large parts of the network are in chaos following the introduction of new timetables, which enacted the greatest changes to train times since the withdrawal of steam trains 50 years ago,” says Dr John Disney from the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University. He’s an expert on train services and modernising the rail network.
It was supposed to be the biggest shakeup in train services since the end of steam trains. Instead, in part of Britain, train services have simply gone off the rails.
According to Dr Disney, the problem initially starts with Network Rail.
“Network Rail is essentially the state-owned infrastructure company that is also responsible for the pathing of trains — which trains can run where and when,” he says. “Its electrification projects are running behind schedule meaning that diesel trains have not been released as predicted to enhance services on non-electrified lines and allow the retirement of some old life expired trains.”
What’s more, Network Rail missed a deadline in February to confirm the May timetables to the train operating companies — franchises that bid to operate services across Britain’s privatised rail regions.
“Missing the 12-week deadline left passengers in the dark regarding train services from May 20,” he says. “This also affected the many bus services which integrate with trains as bus operators are required to give up to 10 weeks notice of service changes.”
The timetables were eventually confirmed to the train operating companies in April, just six weeks before they came into operation — and even then, these “final timetables” experienced some further changes because some did not meet minimum standard requirements for franchise groups.
But the government too must take a share of the blame, Dr Disney says.
“Government officials failed to learn from the ongoing problems on the Southern franchise — caused by industrial disputes — and allowed the problems to escalate by pressing ahead with the May changes rather than deferring them until September or preferably December,” he says. “They had the opportunity to maintain the status quo but this would have forced them to admit that they were not delivering the promised improvements on many lines on time. They seemed to ignore the fact that many Members of Parliament and mayors in northern England — let alone rail passengers — were not Conservatives and would thus be less tolerant of perceived government failings than their Southern counterparts.”
What’s more, Dr Disney says, the current government is more “pro car” than previous administrations, with new roads being proposed — including controversial plans for a trans-Pennine motorway linking Sheffield and Manchester rather than improved rail links — and the freezing of fuel duty being continued.
“This means that the marginal cost of private car use is 20 per cent lower than it should be, whilst rail fares have continued to rise in line with inflation,” he explains. “The Department of Transport has also tried to ‘micro-manage’ some franchises and the movement of rolling stock between operators, meaning that some modern rolling stock is currently mothballed whilst 30- to 40-year old stock is still in daily use.”
If that’s not bad enough, the train operating companies overbid for franchises and struggle to balance books.
“Stagecoach-Virgin are about to hand the East Coast franchise back to the government ‘operator of last resort’,” Disney says.
“The GTR franchise is clearly too large and has been at loggerheads with the Trade Unions for over two years; the Northern franchise also struggles with industrial relations but is also incapable of even printing timetables on time for passengers — they were distributed 12 days after the changes came into force — or keeping its website up to date with information on disruptions,” he says. “These functions could have been outsourced and more temporary staff could have been recruited to act as customer service personnel at stations.”
As far as Dr Disney is concerned, there have been some excellent franchises such as Great North Eastern Railway, Midland Mainline and C2C, but also several that “should not only have been stripped of their franchise, but also barred from any future bids for at least five years.”
But industrial disputes too are also partly to blame for the poor state of railway service.
“The railway trade unions — notably the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) — are the last bastion of the trade union movement and stubbornly resistant to change,” Dr Disney says. “I’m surprised that they don’t still insist on every train having a fireman to stoke the coals on the non-existent steam locomotive. The RMT’s dispute with Northern and Merseyrail over the role of the guard comes before any proposals have been made to make changes and in the face of a guarantee of no redundancies or loss of pay for existing staff. In an attempt to keep some trains running on RMT strike days, Northern are using management personnel as conductors, thereby taking them away from their day job of operations management — which is sorely needed.”
He says railways need to modernise and adopt best practices in order to survive and prosper. “We may well have reached peak rail use in the UK and cannot assume that rail patronage will continue to increase as predicted in many franchise bids,” he says.
So is there a solution to this chaos that, in one small instance, leaves Rebecca Pike from Rochdale struggling to balance chemotherapy treatments with a broken train service.
She told the BBC that travelling home from Manchester Victoria after treatment is “horrible and incredibly stressful”.
“My journey home should take 20 minutes, but with all the cancellations it can take a really long time, Pike says, adding that she has decided to take some time off work because travelling by train is too difficult. “I am supposed to be recovering and I feel like the train problems have had an impact on my health.”
Dr Disney says that it’s too late now to turn the clock back on the May timetable changes, there should be no more major changes to any service until December 2019.
“This will give time for new trains to be thoroughly tested and all staff trained with piecemeal introduction rather than a big bang,” he says. “This may not be popular with politicians who like the publicity associated with overnight improvements, but makes operational sense.”
He also says new and existing rolling stock should be “standardised” as far as possible.
“One of the effects of privatisation has been the introduction of small numbers of particular trains that may excite rail enthusiasts but does little to deliver a consistent service and creates problems when trains are cascaded: suburban trains without toilets being used on 150-kilometre routes mile routes; trains requiring more platform clearance; trains without corridor connections between units — meaning that a four-car train is essentially two separate two-car trains. This may mean that some types of train are withdrawn and exported and replaced with more suitable stock.”
He also believes that all train doors should be opened by the driver.
“The closing of train doors should, wherever possible be overseen by platform staff,” he says. “Where this is impractical — stations with low frequency services worse than hourly — this should either be overseen by the driver using CCTV or a dedicated on-board staff member,” he says. And he says passengers boarding at stations without an open ticket office should not be penalised for purchasing tickets on the train irrespective of the availability of a ticket vending machine, as these are often confusing and lead to passengers purchasing the wrong ticket.
“These practices will lead to an increase in staffing levels albeit with some changes in job specifications,” Dr Disney acknowledges.
But the government too must play its part to solve the current mess.
“When franchises come up for renewal they should be replaced by management contracts splitting both risks and profits between the state and the train operating companies,” he says. “All bids should be scrutinised by independent auditors for feasibility; if no feasible bids are received the franchise should be state run for five years, allowing time to draw up a new specification for retendering.”
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.