David Behrens: We’re paying rail company more to add insult to incompetence

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In a year in which the North’s rail services hit an all-time low and stayed there, you would not have thought there would be much further to fall.

Yet this week has seen not only the introduction of new trains on the TransPennine Express route delayed until next spring at the earliest because the brakes don’t work properly, but also a damning set of statistics that lays bare the contempt with which the industry treats its customers – especially those with the affront to put pen to paper about their appalling services.

The key statistic is that well under half of respondents to a survey were satisfied that rail operator Northern had handled their complaints with even basic politeness. Fewer than one in five was happy with the outcome.

The company came last or in the bottom three among 18 train operators in every aspect of the complaints process, in a report by the Which? consumer group that preempts the official investigation into its performance by the Office of Rail and Road. There were half a million complaints nationally during the period in question, so it is at least an area in which the industry can claim to be in growth.

Northern’s inexcusable behaviour needs to be set against the financial problems it faces as commuters, fed-up with endless delays and ridiculous excuses, abandon its services and take to their cars or the buses instead. Its parent company, Arriva, and its German owner are locked in crisis talks with the Government over the level of taxpayer subsidy the franchise receives.

During the year to March 2017, Northern was handed £279m of public money. The following year it got £3m more, despite Whitehall’s intention of reducing the amount year-on-year.

In other words, Northern is being given increasing amounts of taxpayers’ cash so it can continue to be rude to more than half of them. It is literally sticking two fingers up at the public. On this basis, the Government might as well bail out Katie Hopkins.

Implicit in the company’s response to these events is the one strategy it is good at – passing the buck. The delays that have decimated its services since its botched introduction of new timetables in May, were out of its control, it claimed, and had “impacted passenger numbers”.

Irrespective of the root cause of the ineptitude, which can be laid at Network Rail’s feet, the delays were very far from being wholly outside Northern’s control. Its managers proved themselves ineffective at mitigating their impact and it cannot abrogate responsibility their failure.

And what about the rudeness to customers with manifestly legitimate grievances? That’s hardly out of their control, is it? Unless, of course they have no control over their own staff – and given the 36 strikes to which passengers have been subjected over the last 20 months, I can quite believe that. And, by the way, the Which? figures are from last year, meaning they were being rude to people even under the previous timetables.

This cannot continue, yet the Government appears as incapable as Northern’s managers of doing anything about it. Its problem is the contract, signed off by its own flaccid civil servants, which contains no real incentive for the company to improve, other than the prospect of renewal in 2024. With the catastrophic loss of faith among passengers, staff and ministers alike, that is clearly not going to happen – there would be outright mutiny if it did. So Northern’s strategy for the next six years appears to be to milk as much money from the system as it can, for the least possible effort. It’s taking everyone for a ride, except, of course, in the sense in which it is supposed to be doing.

That’s why I am resigned to the belief that the current climate of last-minute delays and cancellations without plausible explanation – in which rush-hour services that are on time are the exception rather than the expectation, and passengers dismissed as irritants – is to be the new normal for us in the North for the foreseeable future.

It is a state of affairs for which Northern is as much sinner as it is sinned against, and for which David Brown and Richard Allan, respectively its managing director and deputy, should accept responsibility and go.

Sorry if that appears impolite – but courtesy cuts both ways.