Rail chaos: Why there’s no excuse for getting the basics wrong when it comes to UK trains

Simon Calder
London Waterloo, where South Western Railway left us shivering: Simon Calder

In Railwayland, the second Sunday in December is a time to rejoice: the day winter train timetables change across Europe and beyond, and often the date chosen to launch faster trains and new routes.

The latest European Rail Timetable reveals some of the improvements from 9 December: new day and night expresses between Berlin and Vienna, better air-rail links at Munich and Kiev, high-speed trains from Tangier to Casablanca and a restored connection between Moscow and Samarkand. You can once again hit the rails from Red Square to the heart of the Silk Road.

Britain, you may not be amazed to learn, is the exception to the rule. First, some good news: trains that were axed from the schedules on the East Coast main line “to improve reliability” are being restored, meaning Stirling will once again be linked with London.

But many long-suffering passengers who depend on Northern Rail and TransPennine Express are still far from getting the service they need – and can complain with justification the capital gets a disproportionate amount of investment.

Yet even the billions that have been poured into Crossrail, the east-west project designed to link Essex and Kent with Heathrow and Reading through a new tunnel beneath London, have failed to deliver as promised. The Elizabeth Line, as the £16bn project is branded, will not open as planned this week.

The service, intended to relieve the stress on the rest of the capital’s system by adding 10 per cent capacity, has been vaguely postponed until “next autumn” – which is rather like saying a train will arrive “later today”.

From the big, bleak midwinter picture let us pass to a small daily reality of travel. I was one of the shivering crowd at Britain’s busiest railway station, London Waterloo, last Saturday morning, waiting with a ticket to Ryde for the 7.30am train to Portsmouth Harbour. Well before 6am that morning, South Western Railway knew the train would be late – for the simple reason the London-bound carriages to form the service were nearly half-an-hour behind schedule.

To pass on this information would have cost nothing. Passengers could have had a cup of tea or contacted people they were going to see to warn them they would be late. But South Western Railway decided not to reveal what it knew.

Even when the train showed up, the well-after-7.30am was further delayed. By way of explanation, the guard announced: “We are waiting for a proceed aspect.”

I imagine she meant: “Even though we are finally ready to go, someone has decided to let the slow train to Hounslow go ahead of us, and so the signal is red and we’ll be waiting a while longer.”

Yes, that takes longer to announce, but it at least lets passengers understand why their journey is even more protracted. Not saying anything, or speaking in code, implies the train firm doesn’t really care.

By Tuesday, the Transport Select Committee had published its report into the shambles that ensued the last time the timetables changed: on 20 May. It concluded: “Around a fifth of rail passengers have suffered appalling services and been very badly let down by the whole system.”

The blame lies with everyone from transport secretary Chris Grayling downwards. Network Rail and train operators were guilty of “an indefensible optimism bias” about the new schedules, while the Office of Rail and Road was asleep at the wheel when, as regulator, it should have been asking tough questions.

Keith Williams, the former boss of British Airways, will be asking some tough questions about why the UK’s railways are such a shambles; he is leading a review into how to make the trains run on time. Yet there is no excuse for getting simple things wrong.

Back to South Western Railway, and in particular its Twitter feed.

“Is the 4.59 from Havant to Petersfield a train or bus?” asked passenger Claire Sellars. “No one seems to know.”

“Hi Claire, this service will be a train and is on its way, it left Fratton on time,” came the swift response.

“Can you please let your info guys know,” Ms Sellars tweeted back. “They are sending commuters to the bus stop.”

For employees of a train operator to be aware whether a key rush-hour service will turn up on rails to a platform or by road to the car park outside does not require the “root and branch reform” the rail industry is demanding.

Train firms first need to show the travelling – though all-too-often stationary – public that they actually give a damn.