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Rail is on track for managed decline, with fare rises only part of the problem

The Man Who Pays His Way: Increasing unreliability and more expensive tickets will drive passengers away

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Saturday 23 December 2023 20:40 GMT
Polar express? Depends on staff shortages at LNER from London King’s Cross and elsewhere
Polar express? Depends on staff shortages at LNER from London King’s Cross and elsewhere (Simon Calder)

Rishi Sunak has been called many things, but here’s a particularly crisp description from one of the railway industry’s most respected figures, Nigel Harris: “The most anti-rail prime minister we’ve ever had.”

That succinct characterisation was made in an episode of the Green Signals podcast, which Mr Harris co-presents.

At the Conservative conference in Manchester, Mr Sunak announced with relish that he was overturning a decade of consensus that Britain needs a new, comprehensive high-speed rail network – and scrapping HS2 to Manchester.

The prime minister then told a financial fairytale: that the funds that would have been borrowed for this critical capital investment were being recycled on other schemes, such as holding down local bus fares for a time and a whole series of uncosted pledges.

But what does he care? For a photo opportunity at a pharmacy in Southampton, he forsook the 70-minute train ride from London and took a helicopter instead.

Annoying as it may be for Mr Sunak, as prime minister he is nominally responsible for the now nationalised railway. In the real world of people trying to get home for Christmas by means other than taxpayer-funded aircraft, hundreds of trains have been cancelled due to staff shortages over the past few days.

On Avanti West Coast alone, two dozen intercity trains were axed on 23 December. A spokesperson for the rail firm said: “We would like to apologise to our customers for the inconvenience caused as we know this is not good enough. These service changes are a result of resourcing challenges, where we have seen a shortage of train crew due to historic leave agreements.”

This is not a case of staff “throwing sickies” because it’s close to Christmas. The current nationwide disruption reflects a tangle of hopelessly outdated working agreements that are totally unfit for 21st-century transport, together with a decades-long overreliance on overtime. In addition, industrial relations are toxic. Train drivers belonging to the Aslef trade union have been in dispute with the rail firms – and ultimately the government – for the last 18 months. So there is precious little goodwill in terms of flexible working.

Consequently, the scale of pre-Christmas cancellations Britain is seeing on local and intercity trains is higher than in any year this century – apart from 2022, when strikes by the RMT union led to many thousands of services being axed.

On the east coast mainline, which connects London King’s Cross with Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland, LNER cancelled and curtailed a number of trains on Saturday, again because of crew shortages. This was particularly significant because King’s Cross station is closed on Christmas Eve due to engineering work.

In northern England, 24 December is looking particularly bleak – with nationalised train operator Northern issuing a “Do Not Travel” notice for some of its lines. The rail firm says: “We will be operating a reduced service across the North West due to train crew unavailability.” By “reduced service”, Northern means no trains at all on seven routes, such as Manchester-Chester.

Why, you may wonder, is only the North West affected – when Northern also operates in the North East? That is because the train operator’s staff who are based at depots on the eastern side of the Pennines have Sundays as part of their rostered working week, while colleagues on the west of England’s spine do not.

Such ludicrous nonsense has prevailed since privatisation in the mid-1990s – along with the most absurd rail fares system in the world, whereby no one will rationally buy a London-Bristol ticket just before travel. The “Didcot dodge” saves 40 per cent if you split the journey into two halves – pausing at, but not alighting at, the Oxfordshire junction station.

On Friday, train passengers were told that the price of using the degenerating rail network will rise by 4.9 per cent from March. Yet as Mr Sunak and transport secretary Mark Harper know full well, making an across-the-board percentage increase on regulated fares is the answer to the wrong question. Comprehensive fares reform, with anomalies removed and journeys priced on a “single-leg” basis, is the only rational way forward.

As international rail guru Mark Smith told me: “Perhaps Benjamin Franklin should have added ‘annual rail fares increases’ to his comment about death and taxes? The government is letting the railways drift when there’s such a desperate need for direction and reform. But of course, the fares keep going up.”

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