Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Trains hit the buffers

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.

That would 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.

Although GTR 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.

It is 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.

I expect 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 pressures.

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 reforms discussed 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.

This points 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.

Yet, as 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.