NO ONE took charge during the timetable chaos that caused severe disruption on Britain’s railways this year. That was the judgement by the regulator last month, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).
The ORR further blamed a lack of “responsibility and accountability” and said passengers were “badly treated”.
When things go this wrong, someone must step up and take responsibility. That someone should have been Chris Grayling – the Transport Secretary. But you would be hard pushed to get grown up politics from this Tory minister. After all, he was the man who previously insisted: “I don’t run the railways.”
That excuse simply isn’t good enough. It means nothing to the hundreds of thousands of passengers left to endure a public transport service this summer that was, at best, pre-Victorian.
In my own inbox over the summer, I was inundated with depressing stories of people missing hospital appointments, benefit assessments and more. In one case, a mum literally moved to a new house from Staveley to Kendal because she couldn’t rely on the train to take her kids to school.
There must be consequences for those companies like Northern, TransPennine Express and Thameslink who continue to provide diabolical services and treat their customers as nothing more than cattle.
That is why I have presented a Bill to the House of Commons which would make it significantly easier for the Government to strip failing rail companies of their franchises.
The fact of the matter is our railways are in a poor state with train punctuality the worst is has been since 2006, despite fares rising by 56.6 per cent. It is no wonder then that over the last year alone, according to recent statistics from the Office of Rail and Road, there has been three million fewer season ticket journeys made.
But the way things are today are not the way they have to be. Britain deserves better, and the Liberal Democrats demand better. Unlike Mr Grayling, Liberal Democrats want the railways to succeed. We think the Government should step up and take responsibility.
My Bill would mean that the Transport Secretary would no longer be able to shy away from being ultimately responsible for making sure people have a decent train service. It would force Mr Grayling to earn the generous ministerial salary he has grown accustomed to.
It would also give the Government the power to break up the large, unworkable franchises to create smaller operators who are better able to handle the problems of running a railway
At the very least, Chris Grayling could commit to take forward these proposals within the recently announced ‘root and branch’ review of rail. However, given the limited scope of the review, I have little hope he will. I imagine the review will be little more than a shuffle of the deckchairs whilst passengers continue to suffer.
Radical action is needed. Just imagine what kind of rail service we could create if the Government had the power to strip failing rail companies of their franchise?
We could create a franchise system that doesn’t just favour those who bid the highest amount for contracts – as happened with Virgin/Stagecoach on the East Coast Main Line. We could empower local people to have a say in running the line, whether through partnerships with local authorities, private companies or passenger-run mutuals.
We could also build a closer relationship between track and train, as has already been trialled in some parts of the network. Indeed, if the rail company have a closer relationship with the track then issues will be fixed quicker. Good franchise holders should also be allowed to roll-on their contracts as well, so that if they’re performing well they’re not a risk of losing their franchise to a higher bidder.
My challenge over the coming months will be to build support for these proposals. I am up for it, and I am confident that many of my colleagues from across the House of Commons will be receptive to this proposal.
But there is also a challenge to the Transport Secretary. It is in his gift to accept these proposals. With Parliament returned after the conference season, and the embarrassing lack of non-Brexit legislation on the agenda, there should be no excuse for Mr Grayling to continue to refuse to act now.
Tim Farron MP is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. His Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency has been hit by the rail disruption.