If you are among Yorkshire’s hard-done-by band of commuters, you won’t need reminding that it was one year ago this weekend that the rail industry introduced its annual spring schedule. It was supposed to be a timetable but it was really no more than a wish list.
The promise was that it would bring more services and better reliability, but it did neither. Instead, Northern cancelled more trains than Dr Beeching, and there was no relief until the next new timetable, fully seven months later. By the autumn, the situation had got so bad that in parts of Yorkshire, fewer than one train in three was arriving on time.
No-one within the industry held up their hands to admit responsibility for what had been the biggest corporate failure in living memory, with the possible exceptions of Robert Maxwell and Brexit. Instead, everyone blamed each other, in the manner of children caught fighting in the playground. “He started it, miss.”
In fact, it was everyone’s fault. There was a sliding, downward scale of culpability, with Chris Grayling, the hands-off Secretary of State, at the top; the managers at Network Rail and the train companies in the middle, and the striking guards at the bottom. No-one emerged with either dignity or credit. The fact that they all emerged with their jobs – in the case of the strikers, guaranteed ones for years to come – was an insult to the thousands whose lives were turned upside down because they could no longer rely on getting to work, or back home to their children, on time.
This weekend, another spring timetable is being introduced, and come Monday’s rush hour, we will have the first indications of whether lessons have been learned from the fiasco.
It can’t possibly be as bad this time – but neither will it make the service significantly better.
The chaos last May was not an aberration but an inevitable consequence of a complacent, outdated and arrogant industry in which mediocrity gravitates to the top and the interests of passengers are subsumed by expediency and bureaucracy.
The proof is that even before last year’s timetable, Northern, a company that belongs on the same scrapheap as the rattling Pacer carriages it still runs, had failed to register a single improvement with passengers. The watchdog Transport Focus had found its rating across 38 categories to be the same or worse than the previous spring, with punctuality seven per cent lower.
Fewer than half the passengers surveyed said they were satisfied with the way the company handled the many delays, and MPs laid into its staff for bullying vulnerable passengers who had fallen victim to an ambiguous ticketing policy.
Not one of these issues will be addressed by this weekend’s new timetable. At best, it will signal the end of the abject chaos of last year and a return to the more familiar level of simmering ineptitude that preceded it.
The light at the end of the tunnel is the root and branch review of the industry ordered by the Government as its one and only response to the debacle. It is a chance to rebalance the service in the public’s favour, by finally incentivising passenger satisfaction: imposing penalties on train companies that fail to hit stringent targets – not only on punctuality but also the dissemination of information and the helpfulness of staff.
The travelling public has for too long been the industry’s Cinderella, as its managers genuflect to their principal clients – the civil servants at the Department for Transport. Passengers have been the cargo they are obliged to carry. Livestock, parcels or people: it has made little difference to them.
The industry will not change by itself, as evidenced by the campaign it is currently running at stations, imploring customers to treat the staff with dignity and respect. No-one is suggesting that workers deserve to be abused – they’re not vulnerable passengers, after all – but respect in any employment must be earned, for a job well done. We will see on Monday morning how much of their dignity they deserve to have restored.