Nick Herbert is a former Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, and is MP for Arundel.
We are now into the seventh week of Thameslink’s new rail timetable and it remains a shambles. In my constituency alone, hundreds of trains are being cancelled, delayed or removed from service every week. And when they do eventually arrive, the trains are often too short, resulting in overcrowding.
For the public, who endured well over a year of abysmal services as a result of the industrial disputes and the London Bridge upgrade, this further collapse in services is the final straw.
Previous disruption was largely – though not exclusively – caused by the unions in an unjustifiable campaign against modern trains. But these timetable changes cannot be blamed on another party: they are the industry’s own initiative. The changes may have been intended to improve services overall, but they have been abysmally planned and executed, and those responsible must be held to account for the failures. It was foolish for GTR and Network Rail not to foresee the risks of such a big timetable change. The chaos appears to have been a major unforced error.
The immediate priority is to sort out the chaos. GTR tell us that a “a more dependable interim weekday timetable will be put in place” in two weeks’ time. It could hardly be worse. Today I still have constituents sending me photographs of message boards showing one cancelled train after another, and commuters having to stand on jam-packed trains. It is completely unacceptable.
Passengers deserve redress, and the ‘delay repay’ scheme is not good enough. Last week Transport for the North announced, on the Transport Secretary’s recommendation, that Northern’s season ticket holders will be given the cash equivalent of a four-week refund because of the scale of disruption they have endured. Today, MPs are asking for similar measures for GTR’s passengers.
A significant rebate – paid for by the industry, not the taxpayer – would demonstrate that the Government has understood the impact of the disruption on passengers, and has responded to their concerns. Since there has already been over a month’s disruption, a rebate at this point would be entirely justified.
It would also ensure that shareholders of GTR would feel the pain. The Transport Secretary has said that he will not hesitate to take enforcement action against the company if it is found to be materially in breach of its contractual obligations, and he added that “there is unquestionably a large question mark over its future”. Any such action, including the loss of the franchise, will be welcomed by the public who have completely lost confidence in GTR – and doubtless by MPs, too.
Some conclude that the answer is to renationalise the railways, but those of us who are old enough to remember the days of British Rail know that this is no panacea. The inquiry set up by the Transport Secretary will reveal who was responsible for the current chaos, but it already seems clear that Network Rail is also to blame, and this body is in public ownership. Putting civil servants in charge of running the railways isn’t the answer. We need to hold companies and their managers to account, where necessary removing them, and look again at systemic problems in the railway industry.
Rail in the South of England undoubtedly needs more long-term investment. Passenger numbers have doubled on routes in my constituency in less than the 13 years in which I have been an MP. The infrastructure is inadequate, and the current structure of franchises doesn’t work. It is ironic that attempts to modernise the network with newer trains, the London Bridge upgrade, and a new timetable which was meant to see more and better trains have been the very things which have caused services to be worse. Still, far more improvements are needed.
The message from the public is clear: sort out this chaos now. Rail companies and managers who can’t deliver must go. In the meantime, compensation is the least that passengers deserve.