Michael Williams

Why do rail bosses treat the travelling public like idiots?

December 3, 2010 Daily Mail

The thought of going back to the railway station for that miserable commute to work after the long Christmas and New Year ­holiday is grim at the best of times.

You have to fight to get a seat in an overcrowded carriage where people are packed like sardines.

The staff are rude. The information is poor and the attitude to delays is ­callous or indifferent.

Maintenance of the track is appallingly inefficient and more expensive than in almost any other developed country.

You think that’s bad enough.

But from Sunday, Britain’s beleaguered rail travellers will be hit with above-inflation fare rises that will confirm our status as the most expensive country in Europe to travel on a train.

Before you think this is another rail-bashing article by a paid-up member of the roads lobby, let me say that I count myself a friend of the railways and I write these words in sorrow.

I have spent the past two years travelling thousands of miles around Britain’s rail system, commissioned by a major book publisher, to seek out the best that the nation that invented the railway can offer.

There is still much that is good. However, there is too much that is execrable.

Every one of the criticisms listed above — the overcrowding, delays, inefficiency and rudeness — derives not from commuter bar-room gossip but from official reports published in the past 12 months.

From Sunday, rail travellers will face an average fare hike of 6.2  per cent across the country — but this masks many much bigger rises, with some season ticket-holders facing increases of more than 12 per cent for their ­journeys to work.


The Government and the train operators have already prepared their script to defend themselves against the howls of customer protest.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond trumpets his recently announced £8 billion investment in modernising the railways, including 2,100 new carriages and electrification of lines to the west of London and around Manchester and Liverpool.

He boasts, too, of giving the go-ahead for the £33 billion project to build a new high-speed rail link to Birmingham.

What could be fairer than asking passengers to dip into their pockets to help pay for it?

All this might be tolerated if the people who run our ­railways weren’t treating rail travellers like idiots.

When the fare rises were announced last month, the corporate spinners went into overdrive, simply issuing a national average figure and refusing to give a breakdown for individual train companies, as had happened when ticket prices rose in previous years.

No wonder season ticket-holders in Ashford in Kent, whose annual cost of getting to London rises a whopping 12.7  per cent — from £3,840 to £4,328 — feel conned.

As for Mr Hammond’s much-vaunted 2,100 new carriages, just 339 of them will come into service by 2014, while only last month the influential Commons Public Accounts ­Committee produced a ­damning report on the problem of overcrowded trains.

It warned that despite fare rises, ‘already unacceptable levels of overcrowding will get worse over the next four years’. Incredibly, conditions to ­prevent overcrowding were never written into train firms’ contracts.

In an even more depressing bureaucratic fiasco, Britain’s newest multi-million-pound 140mph express — an eleven-coach Pendolino that would add hundreds of seats to one of the most overcrowded Anglo-Scottish routes — is in storage in Liverpool after the Government refused a two-year ­contract extension with Virgin Trains.

Meanwhile, passengers fight to get seats on trains on this route.

The worst iniquities, though, are identified by Sir Roy McNulty, the former chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, who was commissioned by the last government to look into the value for money that the railway delivers.

In his interim report, just published, he reckons the ­railways are wasting £1 billion a year with incompetent ­decision-making and planning, and that looking after the ­travelling public seems to be near the bottom of priorities for bosses.

As Roger Ford, technical ­editor of Modern Railways magazine, puts it: ‘Farepayers are being expected to pay for the iniquities of the politicians over the years.’

And as for those delays, a major new survey of passengers by the watchdog Passenger Focus confirms what many of us already know. The key finding is that ­passengers are upset by a ‘lack of respect shown to them as either ­passengers or human beings’.

It found that many passengers were given vague, inaccurate or conflicting information or simply none at all.

Meanwhile, the poor traveller faces endless rises in fares. The current cap on regulated rises will be lifted in January 2012 from the Retail Prices Index (RPI) plus one per cent to RPI plus three per cent annually — meaning that train fares will rise by 31  per cent in five years.

Since 1997, according to Passenger Focus, fares have risen in real terms by 13  per cent, while the cost of motoring has fallen by 14  per cent and the price of one-way flights from UK airports has, on average, dropped by 35  per cent.

Pity the poor commuter, who has no alternative but to make that grim journey to the office, digging ever deeper into his pocket.

No matter what the spin, ­official policy seems to be to price people off the railways. 
Indeed, last month, transport minister Theresa Villiers admitted as much by saying that the 2012 fare rises would lead to a drop of four per cent in rail passenger numbers.

This was confirmed in a report from the recruitment firm Reed which claimed that up to two million people may be planning to change the way they get to work or change jobs altogether as a result of the ticket price rises, with consequent damage to the economies of our cities and to the environment.

But there could be another, less definable loss too, as I ­discovered on my train journeys around Britain over the past two years. Our railways offer access to the best of our nation — to her historic and scenic heart — in the most civilised way of travel yet devised.

We created the world’s first proper trains, and pride in the great heroes of the network — Trevithick, Stephenson, Brunel — runs deep through our DNA.

We all retain memories, even if they are sometimes embellished, of clean trains that ran on time, porters who would ask old ladies if they could carry their luggage, engine drivers who would let eager schoolboys peer into their cabs, and waiting rooms with roaring fires for commuters to warm themselves up before beginning that long trek to the office.

For this reason I think the British people will always offer the railways the benefit of the doubt.

It is a pity the politicians and bureaucrats always seem to take the passengers for a ride.

On The Slow Train Again by Michael Williams will be published by Random House in April.

December 3, 2010 Daily Mail

© 2021 Michael Wenn Williams. Cookie Policy.

Back to top