Crumbling edge of quality?

Class 67 No 67002 failed at Hereford on 14 July 2015. The service from South Wales was terminated here as a result of a broken windscreen wiper, leaving passenger to catch the next available service to the north.
Published Mon, 2015-08-03 11:38

The late Sir Peter Parker, when chairman of the British Railways Board, commented in the late 1970s that he was doing his best to shore up the ‘crumbling edge of quality’ in the railway industry against the failure of successive governments to fund adequately the industry.

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Class 67 No 67002 failed at Hereford on 14 July 2015. The service from South Wales was terminated here as a result of a broken windscreen wiper, leaving passenger to catch the next available service to the north © Peter Waller

Nearly 40 years on from Sir Peter’s comments, there is little doubt that the position of the railway industry has radically altered. When he was appointed in 1976, the railways could be considered still as an industry in decline; years of closure and lack of investment had resulted in a business that seemed doomed to a cycle of decline. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now possible to recognise that the late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed the gradual transformation of the business. The introduction of the High-Speed Train, for example, and the more passenger focused nature of the railway saw the years of decline halted and slowly reversed. There were still existential threats to the industry, most notably through the Serpell Report of 1982 and by the proposals that routes could be converted into busways, but gradually passenger levels increased as did investment.

Today the railways are in a very different position to that which Sir Peter found in 1976; passenger levels over the much reduced network are now at a level not seen for more than 90 years, and forward projections see these levels continuing to rise as the population grows and road congestion becomes more severe. Over the past 20 years, there has also been a massive investment in new infrastructure and rolling stock to cater for this demand and, even with the recently announced temporary delay to several major schemes (such as electrification of the Midland main line north of Bedford), Network Rail is still expected to invest more than £30 billion in its current investment Control Period through to 2019. With improvements to Thameslink, the opening of Crossrail, the promotion of High Speed 2 and the introduction of new rolling stock — such as the Hitachi-built Classes 800/801 — these are exciting times for the railway industry.

But is all in the garden rosy?

Ultimately, the railways are there to serve the industry’s passengers and freight customers. It only justifies its existence and the massive investment that it receives by the service that it offers but for many that standard of service is by no means as good as it ought to be.

For many, there is no real alternative to rail travel; commuters, for example, into the country’s main towns and cities are, for the most part, a captive audience as travel alternatives are virtually nil. Capacity on many of these services is already at overstretch and severe overcrowding is common. The industry recognises that overcrowding is an issue; indeed TOCs have statistics that demonstrate the level of overcrowding on trains and most of these suggest that, whilst a problem, most overcrowding is within accepted levels. The reality for the passenger runs counter to this, however, as they stand in vestibules and in carriage aisles. The phrase, lies, damned lies and inaccurate figures on overcrowding comes to mind as it must be virtually impossible for train crews to accurately calculate passenger levels when it’s almost impractical for them to make their way through the trains.

Historically, the railway industry always maintained some additional rolling stock that could be used to supplement services where overcrowding was an issue; that remains in part the case today with trains strengthened for peak hours. But overcrowding now extends beyond the peak hours and beyond simple commuter services.

Take Arriva Trains Wales’ services from Manchester to Cardiff, for example; these are normally formed by either two- or three- car Class 175 units and can be often be formed of the former during peak-hour departures from Manchester. The result is severe overcrowding between Manchester and Crewe and beyond; ATW might argue, with some justification, that many travellers are only going a relatively short journey and so a standing passenger will only have to do so for a short period. But that’s not always the case. ATW has no additional stock available in the Manchester area to supplement the service if necessary; indeed, all the available Class 175 stock is pretty much fully allocated as it stands. In theory, of course, the TOC could seek additional stock but, given the fact that ATW’s franchise expires in 2018, what is the incentive for the operator to invest more and incur more operational costs when there’s no guarantee that it will retain the franchise.

Overcrowding leads to another significant problem: that of delays to trains at stations as passengers seek both to exit and enter the train. After a period when punctuality seemed to be improving pretty much across the network, the experience of many passengers is that delays are becoming more common. There are circumstances where delays are outside the control of the TOCs — such as the failure of signalling equipment, the impact of vandalism and the sad increase in the number of suicides and other incidents — but an additional minute spent loading and unloading passengers at each intermediate station must have an impact as well.

Another factor in the delay to services is from the failure of other services, most notably freight trains, where the industry no longer seems effectively capable of the efficient handling of the logjam. Again, historically, there were probably more goods loops on lines into which crippled trains could be shunted in order to clear the main line. There was also probably a suitable locomotive close by that might be able to rescue the broken down train but this is patently no longer the case. Whilst it’s probably not the case, to the railway passenger there seems to be a lack of an overarching control; that the fragmentation of the industry has reduced its effectiveness in dealing with problems and that the companies that operate the railway — both passenger and freight — are driven more by profit than by the needs of the passengers.

If the ‘crumbing edge’ is affecting services, it’s also impacting on many stations. Whilst there is again massive investment in many stations — both rebuilding and restoring the old and constructing new ones — a number of the network’s stations look and feel ‘tired’. Undoubtedly the work undertaken at stations like Birmingham New Street and Manchester Victoria is impressive and will mean a vastly improved passenger experience once completed — and it’s remarkable how effectively these stations have been result whilst remaining operational (in stark contrast to, say, the rebuilding of New Street in the early 1960s) — but too many others suffer. When a new franchisee takes over there’s the inevitable burst of enthusiasm as stations are bedecked in the new TOC’s house colours, but this enthusiasm soon seems to wane, particularly again as a franchise draws to a close.

For the past 25 years, the railway industry has been a success story; indeed many of the problems highlighted above are a result of that success, but it’s not a wholly good position. It’s all very well to trumpet the high-profile schemes — like Crossrail and Birmingham New Street — but, for many passengers, much more important is the level of comfort they experience on a service, say, from Huddersfield to Leeds on a day-by-day basis. Focusing on the macro has seen the railways lose focus on the micro and for most it’s the small scale that counts.

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