Philip Hensher: The other railway scandal - there are too many workers who are paid to do nothing


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It's been announced that train fares are to rise from next January by an average of 6.2 per cent. Some tickets are to rise by 11 per cent – many times the rate of inflation. The train companies now receive much more money from taxpayers than they did when they were owned by the state, and are still producing services which are late, overcrowded, far more expensive both to run and to use than European services, and which show no sign of improving. It is a disgrace.

The McNulty report into the state of railways, published last year, drew attention to their wastefulness and inefficiency. Sir Roy McNulty believed that annual savings of up to £1bn could be made through his recommendations. Certainly, the figures, which indicate a gap in efficiency of up to 40 per cent of expenditure between the UK and European services, is unreal.

There is an immense saving to be made, however, and it has to be faced, sooner or later. In my view, the railways are overstaffed to a huge degree. A third of employees could be sacked with no effect on services whatsoever.

I travel regularly on First Great Western trains down to Exeter from London, and from Exeter to Topsham. At Exeter Central, there are always four people standing at the ticket barriers. What are they doing? One of them seems to be explaining how to place your ticket in the machine. Another is offering to sell you tickets. The other two don't seem to be doing anything. Half a mile away, at Exeter St Davids, there are four more people standing at another set of ticket barriers. God knows why, or why a town the size of Exeter needs two fully staffed railway stations.

A month or two ago, I was waiting at Topsham station, watching a gentleman from First Great Western mend the ticket machine. He finished his job, closed the machine, and got on the train with the rest of us. He did a good job. Here's the thing, though; he was accompanied by a fat bloke in a uniform who did absolutely nothing. He just held the keys, and got on the train with the man who had actually achieved something. What did he do for the rest of the day? Stood by the ticket machine, probably.

I could go on. The London train has a pleasant service which offers free cups of tea in the first-class compartment, delivered by trolley, though the buffet is only two carriages away. It's pushed by two people, one in front, and one behind. One pours the tea; the other hands the tea bag to his colleague. What do you do? You accept the tea, and pay their wages. Why on earth is catering not being contracted out to Pret a Manger, anyway?

The unions have too long succeeded in threatening the management with baseless talk of safety and security lapses. Their pay and conditions, as McNulty rightly said, are excessive. Their numbers just don't seem justifiable. The sooner a hard-nosed team starts to look, not just at the pay and conditions of railway employees, but how their numbers can be reduced, the sooner the railways will move towards efficiency and good levels of service.

The male Pill: it just won't work

Medical researchers have announced a step forward in creating a male contraceptive pill. A small molecule, termed JQ1, can disrupt the protein that makes sperm fertile. Anticipation of this development is running high.

It's not going to work. Not because it won't function, but because no one will want to rely on it. The woman, on whom consequences fall, will want either to take care of matters herself, or to see that measures are being taken.

There are some advantages for the man, but it is asking a lot for him to disable his sperm when there are easier, cheaper, and less extreme methods.

Thirty years ago, food manufacturers tried to introduce a wide number of different-flavoured tomato ketchups. They all failed. Why? Because tomato ketchup is actually perfect. And contraception is rather like that. The Pill and the condom will do for most people; they seem to place responsibility on the people who would otherwise bear the consequences.

You can't have it both ways, Jeremy

Jeremy Clarkson has, in the past, insulted charming German car manufacturers by calling them Nazis. He has also insulted lesbians, Koreans, Malaysians, dead Chinese cockle-pickers, people who throw themselves under trains ("Johnny Suicide"), trade union members ("have them all shot"), lorry drivers, people with facial deformities, and quite a few other groups of people.

Now, oddly enough, I have no real objection to any of this. There is a point that bad taste humour and childish insults might as well be put up with, since the alternative is a regime of compliance and control. But it's too much for Clarkson himself to complain when the humour turns on him. His dog Whoopi died, and he chose to announce it on Twitter.

Immediately, his followers started to comment. "How does she smell?" one said. Another wanted to know if it had been killed by Clarkson's fellow Top Gear presenter James May. And so on. Britain, Clarkson said, was a nation of "utter bastards".

Well, yes. I'm happy to live in a world where people are sympathetic when their friends' dogs die, but it's also a world where we don't call Germans Nazis for no reason and refer to tragic deaths as "Johnny Suicide". Can you have it both ways? If you laugh at a dead body on a railway track, but not at a middle-aged man snuffling over his dead pet, does that prove you have a sense of humour?

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