Tom Richmond: No cure for failing railway – and Chris Grayling – unless customer service is on time

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling during a visit to York.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling during a visit to York.
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JUST like the trains, Chris Grayling’s acceptance that failed passengers have a right to more up-to-date information at stations is better late than never.

After all, it’s nearly 10 years since I first revealed the scandal of rail operator Northern’s ‘phantom’ trains – services advertised as being ‘on time’ then being suddenly cancelled 15 minutes after their advertised arrival.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling fails to recognise the scale of discontent on the region's railways.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling fails to recognise the scale of discontent on the region's railways.

Lessons, it was said back then, would be learned and now the Failing Grayling Express – the slow-moving train used to make policy – is trundling into gear.

“Automated announcements do nothing to show sympathy for inconvenienced passengers and often fail to provide vital information,” says Mr Grayling. “That’s why I’d like to see, wherever possible, the return of a human voice at the other end of a microphone.”

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What’s taken so long? Though various Transport Secretaries have come and gone over the past decade, reliability – and customer service – has deteriorated markedly since Mr Grayling took the controls in July 2016 (even though he’s only responsible on those rare occasions when services do run like clockwork).

One of Graeme Bandeira's cartoons of Chris Grayling.

One of Graeme Bandeira's cartoons of Chris Grayling.

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Now look at the state of the services. TransPennine Express has just made the extraordinary admission, after a 15-year-old girl was left stranded in Greater Manchester when her train did not stop at Slaithwaite, that driver error might have to been blame.

A plausible explanation for this is now as late as the trains on the main Leeds to Manchester line, where as few as one in three run on time on some days – all while TPE boss Leo Goodwin pockets a handsome bonus in a reward for failure.

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Then there are the continuing problems at the other end of the trans-Pennine line between York and Scarborough. When two late-night services to the resort were cancelled on a recent Friday night, the parents of one 19-year-old girl say they forked out £45 for a taxi so she could travel home safely.

And services between Doncaster and Leeds, operated by Northern and also LNER, are no better, judging by commuter Vanessa Bremner’s daily posts of exasperation on Twitter. Ten trains caught and “all 10 arrived late”, she reported last Friday night.

They’re the latest three examples as passengers contact The Yorkshire Post because they say train operators, and politicians like Mr Grayling, are not listening to them. These complaints all highlight one trait in common – poor communication.

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This is not a surprise. One of the central criticisms of the Office of Rail and Road’s interim inquiry into this summer’s timetable turmoil, which cost the North’s economy at least £35m, was the fact that station staff had no more information than passengers about problems.

So, while many commuters will welcome the fact that the latest cancellation is due, in fact, to be 
revealed in monotone platform announcements, how does Mr Grayling expect human announcers to do a better job if the operators don’t know what is going on?

For, while travellers are, on the whole, very sympathetic when there are legitimate reasons for late services, their patience will evaporate if ‘I don’t know’ – the Transport Secretary’s stock answer to awkward questions – becomes the default response on the railways.

That’s why an effective politician would be ordering the rail franchises to make customer service their top priority and introducing the type of performance targets which hospitals, schools and other public services are judged against.

If they don’t provide accurate information, or provide adequate response and compensation to complainants, they should be fined – and there should be scope to strip repeat offenders of their franchise.

Why? The response of TransPennine Express to Nicola Robinson after her daughter Chloe’s train failed to stop 
at Slaithwaite is emblematic of the derisory service that passengers routinely face. Told it “may be due to the driver not being fully informed of whereabouts to stop along that route”, she was given a £3.70 refund and a £10 rail voucher.

Repeated requests for a fuller explanation yielded no response until the story was posted online and prompted an email request from TransPennine Express to ask Mrs Robinson to contact them.

What a carry on – and no wonder passengers are sympathetic of Labour’s call to renationalise the railways. Even though there are no guarantees that efficiency will improve, they’re of the view that services won’t be any worse.

And that is a problem for Ministers after Chancellor Philip Hammond only made cursory mention of the Northern Powerhouse in the Budget. Every passenger inconvenienced by late trains, and angered by every excuse trotted out by Chris ‘Don’t Blame Me’ Grayling, is another potential voter left alienated by a Government seemingly incapable of getting the trains to run on time.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk