Hitting the Buffers

Date: 06/06/2018
Author: Chris Fletcher
Company: Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

Where to start?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time the last week or so trying to recall anything that has come close to what has been unfolding before our eyes with Northern. Aside from “The Thick of It” or “Veep” I’m struggling with anything in real life that on the face of it has been so badly managed and handled as what we have seen over the last three weeks.

I’ll declare my hand – I am, or was, an infrequent user of the train. My commute was from Horwich Parkway to Manchester Victoria and then return from Oxford Road. The majority of the time I drove into work. But on the occasions when I did use the train – maybe half a dozen times per month it was OK. I recall the day when new rolling stock was introduced and the cramped two carriage journey became a little better with four carriages (not on every service though). The carriages were usually OK – not first class but often clean(ish) – the heating controls were another matter and as for the inside rain on the Pacers……..

So whilst not travelling in sumptuous comfort, the 30-minute journey was more relaxing (for me) than 90 minutes nose to tail on the motorway.

Yes, there were the occasional late runnings and sometimes the odd cancellation – no doubt regular commuters have a different story to tell of what I predict will soon be referred to as the good old days i.e. anytime before the disastrous 21st May 2018 timetable change. It wasn’t perfect by a long way, but compared to what is currently happening it probably seems like Nirvana?

I like to think that I’m reasonably intelligent and can get my head around complex political decisions and documents, however try as I might, I still just don’t understand from the explanations given why what has happened has happened. I’m no expert on the intricacies of training train drivers, and there’s obviously a lot more to this than meets the eye, but ultimately that’s of no help when your one train an hour gets cancelled; or a 2 carriage pacer wheezes into the station – already full; or when your journey home is little short of a lottery – will it, won’t it?

I recall not so long ago being asked, along with all the other passengers on an already late running train, to disembark at the next station as it was continuing its journey non-stop to its destination, missing out at least half a dozen stations, so that it could arrive on time. About 40 people had to get off at that station so the train could get back on schedule. Think about that.

And that ultimately is the problem. Northern’s job is not to run trains, it’s to transport passengers in a safe, comfortable way from A to B; it just so happens to be trains that form the way it does this. But whether it's by bus, coach, train, tram, plane or anything else, it should be all about the passengers: the people who pay for the service and who also pay for its mistakes too.

I’d love to invite Mr Grayling, or any senior official from DfT, to accompany me on a train at present coming into or out of Manchester (I believe they do still run occasionally) – just to do a commute one day to see what it’s really like.

The only thing that seems to be moving reliably at present is the buck that’s being passed around various departments and organisations.

Despite the absolutely unacceptable disparity in infrastructure spending, I don’t see this as north vs south – they have enough problems of their own – it is about the way that the rail industry in the UK has been allowed to run itself the last few years with passengers actually being seen more as a nuisance and hindrance. This can’t carry on and shouldn’t carry on and whilst control of “our” trains is appealing that’s not going to prevent the cancellation of the 17.34 to Preston tonight – it may stop it in the future, but action is needed now and it has to be effective, not deck chair shuffling like the recent emergency timetable launched on Monday appears to be.

There is a well known phrase – car crash TV – what we’ve seen recently can best be summed up as train wreck management.