I took a train from London to Manchester on Thursday, as I do quite regularly. As it pulled out of Euston station, the announcements – always so many announcements – began.
“There will be no hot drinks available on this service.” Strike one. “For the first 20 minutes of this journey the buffet car [which has no hot drinks] will be cash only. There will be no card payments until the machine has charged up.” How retro. Strike two.
And then there was the issue that they didn’t announce – namely that because the electrics were clearly on the blink, the doors to the toilets could not be locked so they were effectively out of order, too. Unless you wanted to run the risk of exposing yourself on a particularly dynamic lean of the Pendolino. Strike three.
Still, I thought, at least I have a seat and the train is running to time. But at a cost of £80.60 for a single in standard class at the very off-peak hour of 3pm, somewhere to sit and arriving on schedule are the least one might expect. For that price, arguably, one should not only have hot water, working toilets and the ability to buy a pack of Walkers Shortbread Fingers on Switch at will, but also free gin and tonic, a lending library of the latest Booker shortlist and complimentary phone chargers at every seat. There is not even free wi-fi in standard class. To stay online, very patchily, from London to Manchester costs £6.
And this was one of my better journeys up north. Everyone in the land could tell a tale of woe about cancelled services, delays, a ruined Christmas or having to stand outside a toilet all the way from Newcastle to Edinburgh. Last year, 400,000 angry tweets were sent by commuters to the 14 train companies that run services into London. Of those, 62,352 featured the words “crowd” “no seat” and “sardine”. The UK’s train service is rubbish and everyone knows it.
Everyone including Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, who gave a speech this week in which he branded the railways “a bit of a scrapheap”, which is true. He also said that Network Rail is the company “people love to hate”, which is nonsense. Ask any harassed commuter on any concourse from Paddington to Piccadilly and they would far rather their journey was in the hands of a company they loved to love, but Network Rail is so very proficient at making itself unlovable, to the point of being unusable at times.
That must change, said Carne. Network Rail’s reputation must move away from “stale sandwiches, leaves on the line, and the wrong kind of snow” to a more competent, and crucially, more “caring” organisation. He outlined two main problems with the railways: they are untidy – littered with scrap rail, old sleepers and graffiti – and the company that runs them is too “macho”. His solution: hire more women to tidy them up. If you want walls scrubbed, stations cleaned and better sandwiches, then a woman’s your man. They can probably help with the caring stuff, too.
That is not quite the full story. Carne also blamed the male-heavy culture at Network Rail – only 14 per cent of its staff are women – for wider operational problems. The injury rate among workers is infeasibly high, about 600 a year, because of the prevailing, testosterone-fuelled attitude to safety.
Having worked in the oil business until he took over at Network Rail in 2013, Carne pointed out how the “extreme macho, and frankly unsafe, culture” on the oil and gas rigs had changed in the 1970s when they started hiring more women in more visible positions. All women with the appropriate qualifications for a vacancy at Network Rail will be guaranteed an interview, he said.
Of course there should be more women. Why not? I admit, gender politics are not the first thing to spring to mind when I hear the dreaded words “engineering works” or “rail replacement bus service”, but I’m sure a woman, caring or not, can sort out the network’s failures as well as the next man.
How the organisation goes about tackling its problems, and who tackles them, is of minor interest to the average passenger, but tackle them it must. Overrunning engineering works, staff shortages, inflated ticket prices, overcrowded commuter trains, and endless, empty first-class carriages are the things that matter on the daily grind. Fresher sandwiches, nicer stations and more caring railways can probably wait. We’re used to waiting, after all.
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