How many civil servants does it take to run a railway?

By | Category: Travel rumblings

how trains should run?

Judging by the absolute mess that the government has got itself in this week by revealing that there were flaws in the bidding system, a lot more officials are needed than we had. Or a few who know what they are doing.
The Department of Transport has had its staff numbers cut so some say that it didn’t have the resources to create a complex process Some say that civil servants involved couldn’t run the proverbial brewery party.
And apart from the £40 million or whatever it will eventually cost, we – the travellers, visitors and train users couldn’t care a monkeys. As I wrote on a couple of occasions in August, what we want is a railway that – according to politico speak – is fit for purpose. Have we got one? Most of the time it functions pretty well as long as politicians, civil servants and some others don’t get involved but it could be better and does it really need to cost so much?
In today’s Independent newspaper, Simon Calder, all-round travel guru, suggests ten ways in which the railways could be improved. Some issues he raises may help. His first suggestion is that fare cuts, not rises should be the norm. Why do we pay so much since fares in France, Germany and the Netherlands just to name three are so much cheaper? As Calder says, the McNulty report reckons our fares should be a third cheaper than they are but because of the bureaucracy we have, we suffer. But will anything McNulty suggests come to pass? Will governments only accept the easy answers and shelve the difficult ones?
On one issue I take exception with Calder. He suggests we do away with tickets but that fails to take into account that a lot of us don’t have computers or smart phones where we can access systems. Both will have to remain. As the government found in trying to phase out the cheque, removing some things disadvantages some who have a real need for it.
And many of his suggestions fail to take into account that, for example, being able to book twelve months in advance doesn’t resolve the operational issues that passengers face. Others like peak time pricing policies meaning some trains go half-full when the first cheap day service is packed could easily be resolved by instructions saying that if a train regularly travels less than half-full it must be withdrawn to make way for more track room for better frequented services or the fares are reduced. The popularity of the Club 55 scheme suggests there is a demand that isn’t being met.
To add to Calder’s list here are five of my own ideas.
1 More cross country services to save having to go into London to change to yet another London station to get to the final destination. One service that is busy is the Gatwick-Reading three coach service so how about an Ashford International – Oxford service via Tonbridge, Redhill, Guildford and Reading so that those using the channel can get to the Midlands without having to go via London?
2 Reduce the number of first class seats on long distance routes where carriages are less than half full so that passengers who are sometimes paying £60-£100 don’t end up standing or blocking passageways through no fault of their own.
3 Consider double decker trains on routes where no tunnels/bridges are problems.
4 Look at a railway around the M25 that links key interchange points like Stevenage, Bromley, Watford and Heathrow (if the airport survives) so that there is less traffic on the M25 and some people have the option of public transport where no credible alternative no exists. Maybe a similar approach to the Manchester and Birmingham areas
5 Adopt the French system of a carte where I can buy 10 or 20 tickets for the same route but at a discount. Just because I don’t use the service everyday doesn’t mean that I know I won’t go to Leeds from London at least twelve times a year or go into London once or twice a week from the home counties.
And two more.
Get it right, get it cheaper and find some people to run it who know what they’re doing. And when you put non-executive directors onto boards put ordinary people not mates of councillors, retired M.P.s or businessmen who probably would only travel first class.


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