The biggest organizational story in Britain at the moment – the abject chaos on the railways – is one which happens to affect me personally. I use one of the routes on the Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) network which, along with Northern Trains, introduced massive changes to the timetable on May 20. The time for every single service on the GTR network was changed and in the process some stations saw a larger number of services but, certainly at my station, most of the fast services to London were removed. Thus a service which used to have several trains a day that took 40 to 45 minutes into London now has a few trains with a 50 minute journey time but most scheduled to take 70 minutes.
be cause for dissatisfaction, but it is not the cause of the chaos. Rather,
from the moment that timetable was introduced it failed disastrously, with
almost all the new services cancelled or massively delayed. Journey times rose
in some cases to three hours and, of course, where these trains ran they were
massively overcrowded. The result was misery, frustration, missed appointments
and disrupted lives.
put out statements about teething problems being expected, it was very soon
clear that what was happening was far worse than that implied. Thus, a week
after it all started, an amended timetable was created in which almost all of
the faster trains were stripped out. But, even amongst the services left,
cancellations and delays abounded. Nor is there even an official timetable to
try to plan by – what has been created, and is still the case as I write this,
is a service, if one call it that, which changes hour by hour.
Trains are mysteriously
announced, apparently randomly, and sometimes run but often are just as
mysteriously cancelled. Or they run, but don’t stop at the stations they say
they are going to, or terminate at a different station to what was said. Or are
delayed for unexplained ‘operational reasons’. Information is minimal, and
often incorrect. So a 45 mile journey to London is now an excursion into the
unknown that can take hours, often in extremely unpleasant conditions.
difficult to overstate how utterly dismal this experience is. People’s lives
are completely built around being able to travel to places of work and
education and are intricately calibrated around public transport. And whilst
for many year the British rail system has been marred by cancellations, delays
and overcrowding, what is happening now is on a scale beyond anything that certainly
I have ever known before. Nor should it be forgotten what a terrible situation
it has put those working on the railways in. It is they who have to bear the
brunt of the anger and distress – and, I wouldn’t be surprised, threats and
violence - of passengers, yet they are powerless to do anything and don’t even
have any accurate information to pass on.
So far as
can be ascertained from what has been said in public, the reason all this has
happened is that the train companies failed to recruit and train (for the new
routes) enough drivers. It is as simple, and as absurd, as that. Given that the
timetable changes had been planned for many months, possibly as long as a year,
this represents a level of organizational and managerial incompetence on a
quite extraordinary scale.
that, eventually, we will learn more about what happened organizationally, but
a few things are already obvious. It may not be the case that what has happened
is directly attributable to privatization – although there are good
reasons for criticising that on general grounds, including the far higher
subsidies paid to the private companies than were ever available to British
Rail. But it certainly appears that the fragmented structure created by
privatization is part of the explanation. This encompasses both the split
between responsibility for the network infrastructure and for train operations,
and the way that routes are bundled and unbundled together under every-changing
franchises (for example, GTR is I think third or possibly fourth company that
has run my train service in the last 20 years). This creates co-ordination
problems, loss of organizational memory and, I have no doubt, cost-cutting
At the same
time, what is happening now exposes starkly the lack of meaningful
accountability. There are calls for the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, to
resign. He’s a politician with such a track record of incompetence in the
various ministerial roles he has held that he is widely dubbed ‘failing
Grayling’; indeed he was the Justice Secretary responsible for the disastrous
elsewhere on this blog. He has resisted these calls, on the grounds that it
is not he, but the rail and train companies that are responsible.
up the basic, structural problem of the various ways that political and
administrative systems have been increasingly separate over the last 30 years
or so (sometimes by privatization, sometimes by the creation of arms’ length
agencies, sometimes by sub-contracting) with the State no longer itself
providing services. It enables politicians to avoid responsibility, in some
sense with justification in that no one seriously thinks that the Minister
resigning will, in and of itself, resolve this crisis.
Grayling is finding, there are limits to that. As with the supposed transfer
of risk to the private sector through PFI projects and outsourcing, when basic
services fail people will, ultimately, blame politicians. It may also feed
support for rail nationalization, which
stood at 60% just before these recent events. And it may add to the public
outrage about executive high pay (see pp. 117-118 of my book), given that Charles
Horton, the CEO of GTR was paid almost £500M in 2016 despite many service
problems even before the present ones.
But none of
this will help with the immediate situation that I and tens of thousands of
people are currently stuck with, which has made a chaotic mess of our lives.