Christmas has long been a difficult time for Britons who do not drive, because of the near-complete shutdown of rail services over Christmas Day and Boxing Day. This year has been one of the worst after thousands were left stranded in the cold at King’s Cross station in London at the weekend following Network Rail’s abrupt cancellation of all trains. In an extraordinary display of mindless incompetence, this vast crowd was sent to the relatively small suburban station at Finsbury Park, which could not handle the numbers, and so unsurprisingly had to be closed as well for some hours. To cap everything, the backbone of the London Underground, the Central line, was also out of action.
Network Rail – which should hang its head in shame over the miserable scenes at King’s Cross – served up the usual anodyne apologies and pledged that “lessons” would be learnt. The railway watchdog, meanwhile, has ordered an investigation, which could take months to publish.
It is strange that the British public puts up with such awful service on the railways. We pay eye-wateringly high fares to use trains – the highest in Europe by far when it comes to long-distance journeys as well as suburban commutes around the capital. These prices are, incidentally, set to rise, once again above the rate of inflation, on 2 January.
One suspects that this almost mute reaction is partly down to the persistence of a school of thinking which teaches that the right reaction to any adversity is always to recreate the Blitz spirit. Keep calm and carry on. After all, who wants to be seen as an angry little man or woman? Why spoil the festive spirit?
The other reason, of course, is the Byzantine complexity of our railway arrangements, which bear no comparison to those anywhere else in Europe. Because different private companies control different routes while another company manages the actual lines, it is hard for the public to know whom to blame when things go wrong.
The old British Rail had neither a reputation for efficiency nor for customer service, but at least we knew where the buck stopped. Now, whenever disaster strikes, the rail companies shrug and shuffle the blame. Government ministers ooze sympathy for the public’s predicament, never forgetting to remind us that, alas, it is no longer the direct concern of the state.
One thing Network Rail ought to be made to do now is end the absurd practice of piling up months of maintenance and engineering work around Christmas. Despite the ritual talk of learning lessons, this one never has been. Problems happen year after year because of an out-of-date assumption that most people are happy to spend the entire holiday sitting round the fire at home, as if travelling anywhere over the Christmas period were not a right but some kind of weird privilege.
The rail companies ought to be fined heavily for causing such disruption and for wrecking people’s holidays. It is hard to imagine the Tories acting seriously here, however. Our privatised railway system is their baby; they set it up in 1993 and will defend it to the end.
But there is an opportunity for Labour here, as it struggles to come up with policies that have real popular traction. Ed Miliband has already alarmed the rail companies by talking about partial renationalisation of the network by allowing state companies to bid for franchises. He should firm up that pledge and, at the same time, make it clear that a Labour government would not stand for the culture of buck passing, or nod through the annual above-inflation fare rise. If we cannot renationalise the entire network, we need to put the fear of God into these companies. Stoical shrugs are not the answer.
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