RAIL 809: Farewell, walk-up railway?

Blimey. I’ve been a journalist for 37 years and 35 of them have been in railway journalism covering railways of all kinds - historic and contemporary, standard gauge and narrow, British and overseas, heritage/museums/national network… steam, diesel and electric. Even horse-drawn, on the Isle of Man! If it runs on rails, I’ve either written about it, talked about it on TV, or scripted and presented video and DVD programmes about it. I’ve hosted 16 annual National Rail Awards ceremonies in Park Lane hotels in London’s West End.

But not once did it ever occur to me that a quarter-century-old Mk 4 vestibule floor would one day lead the national news - TV, radio and print - for the best part of a week. The #traingate farce involving Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn claiming he had to sit on the floor because he could not find a seat on the 1100 VTEC King’s Cross to Newcastle on August 11 was virulent, heated, controversial and either toxic or helpful to Corbyn’s pro-Nationalisation agenda, according to your beliefs. 

In terms of Corbyn’s personal reputation, opinions were equally sharply divided. The most damaging criticism came from members of the party he leads, but his supporters dismissed the incident as some kind of conspiracy. A poll revealed that significant numbers of ‘Corbynistas’ believe that the national media ‘made it all up’ - and that some Labour MPs are actually Conservative Party ‘plants’ who have infiltrated Labour to wreck its electoral prospects. I kid you not. 

It was a stupid stunt on every level - to claim after the event that Virgin Trains was out of order for releasing CCTV when Corbyn’s party had no permission to film on board in the first place simply came across as hypocritical. The way the explanation kept changing invited (and duly received) ridicule. And worst of all for Corbyn,  he will never shake this off: imagine the sniggering every time he sets foot on a train in future. You’d think a seasoned RAIL reader would know better. And the really silly thing? If he’d travelled on a weekday KX departure around 1700 it really would have been “ram-packed” with no need for subterfuge. It wasn’t the point he was making that caused such a ruckus, it was the apparent dishonesty. 

However, the real problem is unsustainable overcrowding on long-distance trains, for which there is only one solution other than pricing off demand - and I’ll come back to that. 

There was a very revealing exchange between a stressed Virgin Trains lady passenger and the company’s Twitter desk. Accompanied by a phone snap of a genuinely ‘ram-packed’ Pendolino was her comment: “My family are all separated - there just aren’t enough seats on this peak hour train.” The picture carried the hashtag #virginrailfail.

VT’s Twitter desk put its finger right on the point: “I’m very sorry madam - but that train is as long as it possibly can be.” The real spectre haunting us here is the likely end of the walk-up railway at busy times. BR would have controlled overcrowding by hiking fares to keep people off the trains - and by much more than inflation on modernised routes. That option is no longer available on the franchised railway, whose success has piled increasing numbers onto maximum length trains on railways running to near-capacity.

I do not believe that companies like VT will stand by and see their corporate image and business routinely trashed on Twitter and in the wider media. The inevitable outcome at some point will be reservation-only trains. The Transport Select Committee recently asked VT about reservation-only, and the company assured MPs (since confirmed to me) that this is not part of its plan. But it has precedent. Busy trains from Euston at Christmas have been reservation only, and it is currently the only available answer to packed full length trains running on near-capacity railways.

On the West Coast, Virgin’s Pendolino
doubled passenger numbers from 15 million to 30 million - and that number is still increasing. 

The situation is even more acute for South West Trains, which at privatisation had fewer than 1,000 carriages carrying 108 million passengers a year. It now has nearly 1,500 vehicles (1,550 by the end of the franchise) carrying 230 million people a year. The morning peak has increased from 65,000 to 109,000 and the evening peak from 49,000 to 91,000. Waterloo is bursting at the seams and frequencies cannot increase much beyond the 30% already achieved. SWT suburban trains have broadly increased in length from eight to ten cars, while on the main line four-car trains have generally become eight-cars and eight car trains are now usually of 12 coaches.

On other routes, frequencies since BR have doubled or even tripled. BR’s hourly Euston-Manchester service became three an hour with Pendolino, as did the half-hourly Birmingham service. Hourly Paddington-Cardiff trains are now half-hourly, while on the Midland Main Line from St Pancras services have generally doubled to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire. Even on the capacity-constricted South West Main Line, Winchester services quadrupled to four an hour, while Salisbury hourly services are now three an hour.

There is no way that a nationalised British Rail (then or now) could have had the financial resources to pay for the massively increased train fleets or infrastructure investment needed to meet this demand - even allowing for inefficiencies we know are still there. Those wanting to ‘Bring back BR’ or to return railways to public ownership are living in a dream world if they believe the hype of the wannabe nationalisers. The numbers do not come anywhere near adding up and the result would be to worsen the railway’s problems. 

The only way to relieve this capacity crunch on the national network are major infrastructure upgrades such as High Speed 2 in the North and Crossrail 2 in the South, accompanied by digital cab signalling (as and when available) to cut headways and get more trains on our tracks. It’s complicated and it’s not cheap - but it’s the only solution for that angry VT lady passenger.

SWT is already often at the limits of both maximum capacity and ultimate  train length. At busy times the WCML suffers the same fate. This will get worse. Until HS2 is finished and NR can harvest the released capacity it will produce from classic routes, the prospect of reservation-only long-distance travel will inexorably draw closer, day by day.

Bluntly, the end of the walk-up railway is now in sight. Nationalisation could only be the answer if it meant returning to hiking fares to price people off trains. Lower fares which nationalisers offer are a dangerous myth. Ploughing every single penny of current private sector profit back into fares would lead to a cut of around 4% in prices - just once. The uncomfortable question is this: can HS2 be open before reservation-only long-distance peak travel to the North becomes inevitable?

Comment: RAIL 809: September 14 2016 - September 27 2016

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