Rail companies promise jam tomorrow – but will tomorrow ever arrive?
- Credit: Archant
Over the last week there’s been a great deal of navel-gazing and mutual self-congratulation in the rail industry – especially in East Anglia.
Greater Anglia is celebrating the first year of its nine-year franchise to run and transform passenger services in the region.
And a few days later the Rail Delivery Group launched its new “Motherhood and Apple Pie” campaign to try to persuade us all that railways are getting better and are at the heart of all that is good in Britain as a whole..
I’m not going to take the industry to task too much for all this back-slapping, but I do think that some people connected with running our railways need to take off the rose-tinted spectacles looking to the bright future in a few years’ time and look at the here and now from the point of view of the average traveller (if such a thing exists).
I know I’m not an average traveller. I’ve been interested in the railways all my life. I’ve written about them for 30 years and I hope I have a better-than-average understanding of the issues and the pressures faced by the industry.
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But for regular travellers, and especially commuters, travelling by train is a fact of life that can all too often become an ordeal if something goes wrong.
And rail companies need to understand that – and realise that if you are sitting in a full train that is either stationary or travelling at 5mph through the Essex countryside at the end of a busy day at work, you aren’t going to feel too thrilled about the prospect of new trains in two years’ time.
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Let’s try to be dispassionate about the situation on the region’s railways at the end of Greater Anglia’s first year of the long contract.
I know the company has been running trains here since 2012 – but the first four years was on two short-term franchises which did not give it enough guarantees for it to be able to order new trains.
So 2016 and the start of the new long-term franchise does need to be looked on as the effective start of its transformation.
Since privatisation the region has had four rail operators: First Group and Anglia Railways at the start, National Express, and Abellio which currently runs the franchise (albeit in partnership with Japanese company Mitsui).
Greater Anglia is the only one to be bringing in a new fleet of trains, the others kept to the old British Rail mantra of using cascaded – ie rail hand-me-downs – in the region.
Of course right now Greater Anglia is facing challenges. It is trying to run trains on tracks that are either old or are in the process of being rebuilt – meaning that there are often problems for passengers (especially at weekends) that are beyond the rail company’s control.
They also have to share the tracks with freight trains that appear to be getting increasingly unreliable – how many times have Felixstowe services been replaced by buses because of a “broken down freight?” I know that there are growing calls for rail operators to be nationalised from many quarters – especially the leadership of the RMT union.
I can understand that many people feel a philosophical attraction to the idea of state-owned railways and given the financial and operational disaster that was Railtrack I can understand the logic of having the tracks owned by the state.
But from a practical point of view, the benefits of state-owned rail operators seem somewhat unclear.
It is the privately-owned rail companies like Greater Anglia, Great Western, and Virgin East Coast that are investing billions of pounds in new trains that passengers will soon be travelling in – while the state-owned Network Rail is still humming and harring about whether it can afford to carry outs some relatively simple upgrades on track like Ely North junction or Haughley junction.
And, of course, Greater Anglia does find itself something of a piggy in the middle in a dispute between the RMT and government over the future of rail.
The RMT general secretary Mick Cash effectively admitted last week that the dispute over the guards isn’t really with the company – it’s with the government. Which all suggests that the union doesn’t see any point in talking to the company.
So a year into the Greater Anglia franchise problems remain and we are being promised jam tomorrow – but it does look that tomorrow will eventually arrive in the shape of new trains. But then don’t expect everything to suddenly become perfect.