Who’s running the railway?

Saturday 7th January 2023

Listening to Mark Harper, Secretary of State for Transport and Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT doing the media rounds during this week’s strikes brought home the dysfunctional state of Britain’s railways. There seems no hope of an early resolution to the current industrial disputes while a state of paralysis continues with no one admitting to being in charge of the railway and taking responsibility.

Never mind the industry needing a “guiding mind”, it’s leadership and accountability that’s noticeably absent.

Looking at what’s happened (or more to the point, what’s not happened) since this dispute began last summer one can only conclude the Government is pursuing a waiting game hoping the resolve of trade union members weakens from the financial hit of losing pay from being on strike or pursuing an overtime ban. Such a strategy is hardly going to improve morale among the workforce in an industry where so many staff hold customer facing positions and make the difference between a good journey or a bad one and trains are regularly cancelled due to “a shortage of staff”. Come and work for an industry plagued by poor staff relations – I don’t think so, thanks.

Now we have the Government’s latest wheeze to beat strikes in the form of promised legislation specifying minimum service levels with staff ordered to work or face dismissal.

As some wags have pointed out, minimum service levels on certain rail lines would be welcome on non-strike days, never mind strike days. Not only will trade unions fight such laws but all staff need do instead of risking dismissal if they don’t turn up to work during a strike is to cease working non contracted voluntary overtime and reliability on the railway will plummet.

All the while this dispute continues with its consequential disruption passengers are being severely inconvenienced which not only impacts current revenue (Treasury bean counters please note – I haven’t been near a train this week) but has a longer term effect of damaging the credibility of the railway as a reliable form of transport.

So who is in charge of the railway?

Mark Harper, like his predecessor Grant Shapps (I’m ignoring the brief interregnum of Anne-Marie Trevalyn), maintains it’s not Government’s role to negotiate with trade unions; it’s for the employers to do that. That works as a line to take were it not for the fact we all know civil servants at the Department for Transport (who in turn are doing the bidding of colleagues at the Treasury) are micro managing the railway to the extent train company managers have virtually no decision making powers with everything needing DfT approval and sign off before implementation.

It’s completely disingenuous for politicians to say they’re not involved and an insult to our intelligence when they say they’re “facilitating discussions” not least when Mick Lynch explains a potential deal from the employers was kiboshed by the DfT insisting a commitment to Driver Only Operation (DOO) be inserted as a pre-condition just as it was being presented to the union.

It’s noteworthy when challenged by broadcasters on this point Mark Harper didn’t deny it but simply side stepped the point (as if we wouldn’t notice) stating DOO has been around for many years and is nothing new. Well, yes it has, but inserting a commitment to unlimited DOO in the future is something new. Historically DOO exists because it was previously negotiated with trade unions on those routes where it now applies and any further open ended extension needs proper negotiation again, not just shoved into a pay deal as a condition at the eleventh hour.

But in any event who is doing the negotiating on behalf of the employers? The Rail Delivery Group seems to be involved but trade union members are employed on varying rates of pay and different terms and conditions at each train company so surely the negotiations need to be with each separate company? But as Mick Lynch points out the usual financial incentive for individual companies to settle a dispute to avoid the hit to revenue a strike causes doesn’t apply as the companies are effectively indemnified by the Government and still receive contract payments. Indeed they’d take a financial hit if they did agree a settlement that wasn’t approved by the DfT.

No wonder Mick Lynch appears the face of reasonableness in media interviews – he’s the one consistent figurehead in a muddied and confused representation from the employers. We’ve heard Andrew Haines and Tim Shoveller justifying Network Rail’s stance in the media, but no one seems to speak up for the Train Operating Companies. All we see is the Secretary of State telling us “it’s not my job to negotiate with trade unions”. Although I’ve just heard a quote from Steve Montgomery, Chair of the Rail Delivery Group on the radio news this morning for the first time extolling what a great deal the 4% offer is.

When it comes to terms and conditions and restrictive practices everything has its price. The thorny subject of replacing voluntary overtime working on Sundays in favour of ‘rostered five over seven day working’ is surely a must have for the industry, but it needs proper negotiating by professional industry expertise. “Here today and gone tomorrow politicians” are not the people to be pulling the strings of the industry puppet managers and setting the parameters on matters like this.

Historic restrictive practices like Sunday working and a whole host of other roster and duty peculiarities that pervade the rail industry as well as all the constraints CEO Andrew Haines describes govern Network Rail’s work methods have no place in a modern railway, but employers (and in this case their paymasters at the DfT/Treasury) must accept there’s a price to be paid (and negotiated) to buy out these conditions.

Trade unions are often characterised as militant and intransigent but history shows they can be responsive to negotiated deals that improve remuneration and conditions for their members to an acceptable level. While Mick Lynch is a high profile leader, his mandate comes from members who have a vote on whether to accept what’s offered or not. Being at the sharp end with many in direct contact with passengers every day they usually know what will work and what won’t, much more so than out of touch politicians, civil servants and even some industry managers, hence the controversy over proposals to close ticket offices at the same time as the ticket and fares structure of the industry is a complete mess and by everyone’s admission (including the Government) not fit for purpose.

If only as much effort was put into sorting out the much ridiculed and derided ticket and fares structure on the railway – something that’s been promised for years – as goes into bringing restrictive working practices to a head then perhaps the line from Government that ‘rail industry reform’ is essential would have more credibility.

There are also many examples of money being wasted through poor decision making or long outdated practices politicians and managers choose to avoid sorting out that are nothing to do with trade unions. I recently highlighted the ridiculous waste (albeit relatively small expenditure in the grand scheme of things) of the Chiltern Railways weekly bus about to start running between West Ealing and West Ruislip, but there are much more substantial issues like the underused Ordsall Chord built at huge cost and the associated failure to deal with the congested tracks on the Castlefield corridor in Manchester; the wasted turn back siding built at Bedwyn; the wasted locomotive stabling facility at Scarborough; the failure to complete the Great Western electrification; the on/off nature of investment in the North; the delay to improving services on the East Coast Main Line following mega millions of investment; the failure to electrify the new East-West Rail line; the incessant delays to the introduction of new trains; the on/off policies of using trains following expensive refurbishments, eg SWR’s abandoned use of Class 442s before most units turned a wheel and GWR announcing it’s now not going to run refurbished Class 769 trains.

We also now hear the Williams-Shapps Plan for Fail (deliberate typo) has been kicked into the long grass and even the idea of the Great British Railways “guiding mind” seems to be on the back burner yet there’s scores, if not hundreds, of staff working for the Great British Railways Transition Team. What on earth are they doing every day? Transitioning? But to what?

Hundreds of staff are employed by the train companies administering attribution of delays despite Government taking all the revenue risk no matter who’s fault the delay is; more are employed at the DfT monitoring the work of those in the train companies and yet still more work at the Treasury monitoring them yet all we hear about is the excess number of staff employed by Network Rail gangs who attend incidents out on the tracks.

The industry seems to be in a state of complete paralysis with no one in charge. In British Rail days there was a Chairman who was a high profile figure and held accountable. Although dependent on Government funding there was ‘clear blue water’ between him (they were all male) and the Secretary of State/Minister of Transport. Now we have a nationalised industry once again as far as all decision making goes (aside from freight, three small open access operators and the ownership of most – but not all – contractors running passenger trains to DfT specifications and of course, the highly profitable rolling stock companies) but we have the worst of all worlds as there’s no one actually publicly in charge or held accountable.

The heyday of long franchises leading to substantial private sector investment and risk taking with Chiltern Railways the exemplar have long gone, as has the involvement of private sector companies such as Prism, National Express, Stagecoach and Virgin while Go-Ahead is only left with GTR. Even Dutch Government owned Abellio is quitting this year. It used to be observed that with a myriad of privately owned Train Operating Companies each with individual labour agreements, the days of disruption caused by nationwide strikes by trade unions as in the 1970s/80s were over. That hasn’t quite worked as expected then.

We’ve now reached the point where the ownership of train companies (including those European Government owned companies) running the concessions (aka Passenger Service Contracts) being private or public is pretty much irrelevant. I’m all for encouraging private sector entrepreneurial flair into a customer centric industry (as rail should certainly be), but there’s no longer a place for this. It’s become a civil service run set up. There’s no role for commercial acumen to grow numbers of passengers; the Treasury masters are simply not interested. Even pay and employee terms and conditions are no longer determined by the employers – hence the impasse in the current dispute. This muddled confused situation can’t continue.

As I see it, it’s time for everything to be brought back in house under British Rail 2.0. After all, it’s not as though there was a lack of innovation and commercial acumen in the original British Rail especially in its last decade.

(Although today’s version would probably have to be England Railways bearing in mind Wales and Scotland have already nationalised their railways, and then of course there’s the devolved London and Merseyside networks).

Let’s have an industry led by professional railway expertise held accountable for operational and financial performance and importantly, able to resolve industrial disputes.

And this dispute needs resolving with a decent pay rise for all rail workers (as well as other deserving public sector employees – “key workers” and all that). The current offer of 4% for 2022 snd 4% for 2023 with a whole load of changes to terms and conditions just doesn’t cut it and I’m not surprised has been rejected. I’m sure senior executives are receiving pay increases and bonuses in excess of that with no changes to their conditions.

Changes to working practices are definitely needed but should be subject to separate negotiations by expert industry professionals working for British Rail 2.0 with its own decision making powers unencumbered by DfT meddling.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

55 thoughts on “Who’s running the railway?

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  1. In Italy there is a minimum service laid down for strike days, so the RMT should look at the proposals as sensible. Too often we only look at our own country without looking across the Channel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The railway network in the UK currently requires a £6 Billion annual subsidy from taxpayers to keep it solvent. At the same time, trains carry only about one percent of all journeys. Fares on the railway are reaching a point where only the wealthy can afford to use the system, so why should ordinary taxpayers continue to subsidise operations?


  2. Very well said, Roger. Rail services should be run and made to thrive by those who have the freedom and wherewithal to succeed.


  3. Well said Roger. It’s interesting that even the professional railway press such as Modern Railways has said little about the current situation which must be having a very damaging effect on current and future revenue.

    And I agree that a (yet another ) reorganisation is required. But the difference between the past and present was that politicians in the past were happy to let the professionals get on with the job and blame them when things went wrong. Todays politicians want to meddle in everything and believe that they and their utterly incompetent civil servants can solve the problem. This current mess, not only of industrial relations , but how the rail industry is run , sits squarely with the current Government and the Dft.

    And running anything these days has become much more complex than in the past. What is needed is that the network and infrastructure need to be broken up into several areas (regions?) with several ‘guiding minds’ putting their minds to sorting out the mess.

    The last 20 years has destroyed the career structure that created the managers of the past and that cannot be recreated overnight, so there needs to be more manageable bits so there is a structure to recreate career progression throughout the industry. And a breakup would preclude the ability to have national rail strikes which really does put the power in the hands of the Trade Unions.

    Exactly the same thing has happened in the bus industry, the Dft is attempting to micro manage things they don’t understand and the career structure in the industry is well and truly broken. Disaster looms.

    But for the rail industry the current industrial disputes need settling asap and the managers need to be left to manage, and the politicians and the Dft need to remove their sticky meddling fingers from the pie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As a rail worker if 32 years this article is spot on . Most interesting of all it mentions the “dead wood” administration staff . Many of these are classed as managers yet are in fact no more than admin clerks crunching numbers. I believe all recieve a yearly bonus and have had pay awards through out covid . Massive savings could be made if there was a cull of these “management” number crunchers . I for one hope it happens at the TOC I work at .


      1. Depends on what you mean by a manager.I first heard the train guard called a ‘train manager ‘on Eurostar years ago when it still went from Waterloo.The BR pay grades use to to be for office staff;CO(Clerical Officer(I only ever got to CO3!),MS(Manager) and EX(Executive).In effect CO5, the highest CO,was managerial but you could get overtime so it was better to be a CO5 than an MS1!The EX were a bit of a mystery to me and I don’t know how it was graded but the top ones had Gold Passes allowing First Class travel and sleepers not just on BR but SNCF and SNCB too.


    1. Perhaps somebody could explain to me why most train and bus operators have such little interest in existing and potential customers. Lack of information, poorly designed buses and train carriages, poor timekeeping and a general indifference seem to be the norm. Yes, the whole public transport industry needs a good shakeup to eliminate outdated practices and operations.


      1. It’s the subsidies. Run a marketing campaign to incresse passenger numbers and the local council or other appropriate body will see this as a reason to reduce its contribution. Hence no incentive.


  4. Thank you for a very interesting article, but I have little or no sympathy for train drivers whose average earnings are well into £60K and double that of the average nurse.
    The article also brings out the general operational chaos in the rail industry, showing how disjointed, outdated and badly managed it is, not unlike the bus industry in many ways. With the Government supporting massive losses in the rail industry, a trend towards home working, zoom meetings, etc, etc, I see no future for the rail industry unless there is major change in its outdated working and operational practices.


    1. I agree, but of course ASLEF represents the drivers and the RMT the other railway workers, most of whom are nowhere near this level of earnings. Unfortunately, the right-wing press and TV ‘debates’ give the impression (deliberately?) that everyone is on £60k a year…

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Who do you have sympathy for? Does it even matter? The issue is mismanagement and year on year pay cuts to pay for the mismanagement across all sectors in the UK. Blame lies with the profit motive ahead of everything else and it has singularly failed over the last 40 years with indebtedness growing while the skills and competitiveness shortage has been ignored.


      1. It’s very easy just to say that the issue is mismanagement. What if management, whoever they may be, and whenever you might be referring to, were prevented from doing what any sensible business would do by unions holding out against change? Take a lesson from car manufacturing. Outdated practice stopped progress and cost the nation far more than what might be deemed reasonable profit. Essentially it all closed down until Japanese owned businesses and manufacturing practice offered the opportunity for us to produce in the UK again. Guess what, they swept away all that restrictive practice at a stoke, employed a sensible number of people using new technology. What’s more, the employees were happier and the company made a profit. Any why shouldn’t they, given the vast investments they made and the fact that they didn’t need the subsidies from the taxpayer that the nationalised businesses used to need and that their profits are taxed, thereby contributing to the UK economy.


  5. The rail industry is still riddled with archaic working practices going back to the days of steam,
    Network rail needs major changes and needs to use modern technology

    Much of the track, signalling systems and overhead cables are poorly designed and poorly maintained so frequently fail. Nothing will be a 100% reliable but the failure rate on the UK railways is far to high and the repairs take far to long

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting thoughts. Perhaps further left than I might have anticipated. One issue I see is that there are legacy working practices that are 20-30 years overdue for change (honestly, my wife was working for Tesco in 1999 when they changed Sunday and overtime pay rates in a fair way) and unions have been resisting change as a negotiating tactic and giving only minor concessions all that time and long before. I’ve only ever worked in the private sector and one mantra that I have heard all that time is that you can’t outsource a problem. I’d suggest that you can’t insource one either. BR 2.0 would inherit that same 20-30 legacy of issues and all the change resistance that would come with it. To believe strikes would be banished under a BR 2.0 might be a tad optimistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You won’t hear it from politicians or the media, but many of the things they claim to be nationwide problems actually aren’t, and nor are the unions anywhere near as intransigent as they’re made out to be (that claim is a negotiating tactic in its own right).

      Sunday has been inside the working work on my company for the past 5 years for drivers; there’s been “passive provision” for Driver-Only working in my company’s driver contract for 25 years, provision for introducing new technology in the guards’ contracts for 20 years, and so on.

      In 1996 I was working on the not-yet-privatised Central Trains when they negotiated their way out of BR contracts for drivers (and in 1997 for guards); the only reason they didn’t also negotiate similar changes for clerical staff (ticket offices etc.) was that they couldn’t come up with an acceptable salary offer as clerical staff didn’t have the terms and conditions to sell that traincrew had accrued in lieu of a decent basic salary under BR.

      I’m not going to deny that there are some companies where there are issues, because there are, but as often as not those issues are still there because it suits the management not to address them. It’s widely accepted within the industry, for example, that Stagecoach happily took GBP 45 million off the DfT to address the Sunday-in-the-working-week issue on the East Midlands franchise, waited until the last year of the franchise and then only negotiated with drivers, presumably handing the rest of the DfT’s money back after having it available to invest and earn interest on for 10 years.

      You also won’t hear politicians or the media commenting on the fact that the DfT has instructed the TOCs to pay managers £500 for every shift they work strike-breaking, or that despite that offer most managers are still refusing to do so.

      As for GBR: there won’t be a BR 2.0; GBR is dead in the water simply because the DfT won’t give up their control of the contracts and ability to micromanage.

      The UK railways are a great example of how not to privatise a nationalised industry; how not to manage a state-controlled industry; how not to carry out high-level customer service; and pretty much how not to do anything else – other than line the pockets of that part of the legal profession which deals with contracts!


  7. Born into the railway industry and being still ‘involved’ I agree with many that change needs to happen but offering a pittance to the unions is never going to achieve that objective. I agree that BR2.0 is required and that there are outdated practices still going on. In the past annualized hours and DOO was worked out by negotiation and respective basic salary increases. Any new organisation should not involve politicians. The real cause of all current mayhem is not the RDG or the DfT who were both willing to settle but were scuppered 20 minutes before the meeting was to take place, but the deadhead of the treasury! They can sit back a laugh as the unions, the RDG and the DfT take all the flack while treasury mandarins still sit on their sealed coffers stopping all access to them by the public sector. Yes the coffers were heavily raided during the pandemic and the Treasury needs time to recover but, given that they take all the revenue earned by the TOC’s and return a meager 1% plus 1% extra for performance to the TOC’s, this means they rake in the other 98% of all revenue. I am sure that if an extended period of change to implement new practices and performance improvements along with a pay award aligned to inflation this current crisis would be overcome. As for drivers being on £60k, yes some are, but these are few compared to the others as what they do and have to know certainly earns that level of pay (the public is generally ignorant of that!). The dispute is not all about pay demands as the media would have you believe, but more about the implementation of new working practices which I agree are needed – it still harks back to my time and three-eighths for working specific hours and walking time (that was plain crazy!). I wish the unions well but hope that both they and the treasury can come to settlement terms by each making a reasonable sacrifice – the offer of 4% is derisory when inflation is at 11% .

    Liked by 3 people

  8. An excellent synopsis of the situation Roger. RMT looks after the people working at the bottom of the financial tree, such as cleaners, many station staff and guards. Drivers, primarily ASLEF members, have a very different set of pay and conditions that are in line with their level of responsibility with commensurate pay grades. The public naturally conflate the two assuming that all rail workers are well rewarded. This is far from the case. We have a once in a generation opportunity to update the industry that the RMT would actually welcome and would benefit the travelling public. As with fares reform I feel that the goodwill from government is sadly lacking in this respect.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Excellent analysis Roger. Can you do one for the bus industry now?? I fear there are increasing similarities. Lurching from deadline to deadline for DfT handouts to continue empty services seems to now be the order of the day. And where are the leaders of the industry like you used to be??

    Liked by 2 people

  10. An excellent summary of the present position. Thank you Roger. It seems to me that the railways are currently rather like an army, bogged down in the trenches and going no where although receiving casualties all the time. One hopes for well informed visionary leadership. Roger…the job awaits you…!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Rail privatization has failed like it did in New Zealand and has semi done in Japan where only a few of the JR companies are privately owned.I don’t know of any county that has successfully privatized it’s railway but try telling Sir John Major this.


  12. What a scholarly piece, Roger!

    I try not to post too much on things Political, but in this case it is almost impossible not to.

    If I’m being charitable I suppose Mark Harper is a mild improvement on Grant ‘Nothing to do with me, Guv’ Shapps but in many ways the railway is suffering more than it should due to months of inaction on the part of the Government. Now I see they want to change the rules of engagement when things appear not to be going their way (see also Owen Paterson scandal) thereby potentially emboldening not only those in the rail industry with their minimum service proposals but others in the transport sectors too. Brilliant! Thankfully, Keir Starmer has played a political masterstroke by promising to repeal any such legislation.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I agree with most points but feel you’ve fallen into a misconception common in the industry. Delay attribution is not simply to find who’s at fault, it’s primary purpose is to drive performance improvements by identifying problems and bringing parts of the industry together to find solutions.


    1. That would be nice if it was true. In practice it’s not in the TOCs: it gets used to argue the toss over whose budget the penalties are paid out of, not for identifying areas where performance can be improved – as demonstrated by the ever-worsening sub-threshold delays resulting from a lack of understanding of how trains, timetables, signalling and infrastructure mesh together.

      From personal experience I can tell you that pushing back against poor scheduling which breaches National Train Planning Rules simply gets you marked as a troublemaker as well as getting you drowned in reams of paperwork (OK, emails nowadays) from managers and so-called planners whining that complying with the NTPR makes their jobs too difficult.


      1. Hear hear… the planning muppets and the guff they spew out which apparently passes for an acceptable timetable, along with their absolute refusal to acknowledge that there can ever be issues with their piss poor planning, is an ongoing major problem which nobody seems interested to either accept or do anything about….


  14. Sadly, we fail to learn from history.

    The London bus strike of 1958 was long and painful. The outcome of that dispute was that many people had found other ways to travel and passenger numbers never returned to pre-strike numbers. Routes were axed as a consequence, frequencies reduced and the size of the bus fleet size shrank.

    Today’s rail strikes are happening when passengers already have more choices as to whether to travel. Like Roger, I haven’t been near the railway for weeks. When this is all over, I fear that we will have a poorer railway offering, with reduced frequencies, lower patronage and a downward spiral ahead of us.

    All very sad. And just at a time when we should be making more use of public transport, in response to climate change.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Another excellent exposee from one very sensible (and experienced) observer. His end remarks regarding the last years of British Rail are spot on- I was very much part of that era.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. A lot of this commentary is as we would expect well-informed, but I do get fed up with endless silly, cheap and easy jibes about ‘Treasury bean-counters’. I cannot think of a single occasion when any industry or pressure group has advocated cutting the costs of the industries, services or causes they champion.

    This country has very high levels of debt – and taxation – and the idea that this can be serviced at next to no cost has now been consigned to the dustbin of history. I like trains as much as anyone, but the railways are already an irrelevance to most people in the country, and the position has worsened since the pandemic. (If only buses, more relevant to more people, had such lobbyists as do rail-based modes). Funding spent on the (hugely expensive) railway network, whether revenue or investment – competes with the NHS, social care, education and the military, all of which are seeing growing demands. The railways already take a completely disproportionate share of transport funding compared to their mode share – and no amount of partisan and rather dubious talk about ‘externalities’ changes that essential position. Trains are indeed a much more efficient way of carrying large numbers of people and volumes of freight on concentrated corridors, but most journeys aren’t like that, which is exactly why cars and lorries are so dominant.

    Of course the government faces somewhat hypocritically in two different direction on this, not to mention its role in endlessly ‘improving’ regulatory requirements which push up costs. But the ultimate cause of the strikes is the government, however clumsily and cack-handledly, trying to introduce necessary (I would argue) changes that will always be opposed by unions trying to hang on to historic but out of date working practices.


  17. An excellent article but I would add that the train companies also need to be accountable and explain why it takes them so long to restore services after a strike.

    SWR are the worst culprits. I had a lunchtime Eurostar booked on 27th December (a non-strike day) but could not travel on their network as services did not resume until midday. Tomorrow we are currently being told that services will resume from 0730 but the exact train timings are not currently available. How can you plan your travel on this basis ?

    Also on non-strike days most operators have managed to run a normal or near normal service. Not SWR however where very few (if any) trains have run after 2100 since mid December. If Southern, GA and South Eastern can do it then why not SWR ? Perhaps Clare Mann could tell us ?

    London’s economy has suffered enough and thank God we’ve got plenty of tourists wandering around the West End (but sadly not many using Routemaster Route A). It is us poor folk living in the suburbs and the Home Counties that have suffered and continue to do so. Let”s hope the Government ‘facilitates ‘ the talks on Monday and doesn’t let the civil servants pull the strings. We all want to start using trains again .. and be able to get home on them in the evenings

    Liked by 1 person

  18. What was rail reform intended to deliver? Electoral
    success. What has it delivered? Chaos. How do we turn one into the other?


    1. GBR isn’t happening. The DfT has made sure of that.
      But millions are still being wasted on the transitional project because nobody has the guts to actual admit it’s not happening and formally call it off.

      Forget TOC and Network Rail ground-level staff pay; forget Network Rail’s methods of working and all the other smokescreens being publicised through the media. The real money is being thrown away on things like GBR and other projects which never see the light of day: projects which spend millions before being cancelled.


  19. The whole set up has created a money go round for lawyers, administrators and so called “executives” in both public and private sectors. Government then micro manages the whole thing but at the same time claims not to have any accountability if things go wrong. This is disingenuous behaviour on a grand scale.

    I still look to history. The very first railways thought about operating in a way where they ran the track and other companies ran trains. I think the Stockton and Darlington at the start even did that. They all moved quickly to being fully integrated because it is a model that works. There needs to be end to end accountability for service, safety and cost control. Specifically, there are trade offs to think about such as whether and when to close a line for repairs. Such decisions are not made in an optimal way in this highly divided set up. The current UK system is a shambles, and very few decisions seem to be made with any reference to customer needs.

    BR or ER needs to be brought back. Period. Great article.


    1. GBR will be similar to BR. The will set service frequencies and fares and quality and service standards. The only difference will be the routs will go out to competitive tender so hat you have an element of competition

      Some what similar to TfW and TfL


      1. Is GBR happening? My instinct is that the current money go round (really a scam for executives and lawyers) benefits lots of influential people. A Train Driver above seems to make sensible comments.

        Not so sure that tendering yields such a benefit in this environment. Wages are pretty much fixed and workers transfer under TUPE. Operating costs are predominantly track access charges and rolling stock leases. Schedules are predetermined. Investment is set by the DfT. Not much scope to innovate really. Seems like a big money go round that delivers very little. But justifies lots of civil servants and lawyers to administer it.


  20. We love to fiddle. Before we get too nostalgic, I seem to recall one of the original railway companies being nicknamed the Muddle and Go Nowhere at the tine. Things don’t change as much as we like to think. In particular, human nature doesn’t.


  21. What is the vision for the railway? Services have started to stagnate again, with the latest new trains just replacing older trains one for one.

    Travel patterns have changed following lockdown but services have not reflected this yet. Will there be a plan to change?

    The latest open access operator, Lumo, is replicating existing services for the most part , serving the largest cities and appears successful. Perhaps this is the future and there should be a reduction in stopping services. There would be winners and losers but it would be more sustainable than the current model, parliamentary trains and all.


    1. There are plenty of stations where it is hard to see why they are kept open. Passenger numbers have been consistently low and most of the station serve no real market

      There has been dome limit innovation such as Thameslink and thats been very successfull

      Should they look at tking some WCML trains through to Heathrow ?


  22. I can’t agree with that. If we are to be serious about public transport, it has to be a comprehensive service. And, unless we want to put in massive subsidies, we shouldn’t have companies “cherry picking” the lucrative sectors and paying out dividends (although I accept that they may help to grow the overall market), leaving everything else to the State or local authorities etc. Same with buses.


  23. But isn’t that the conundrum? As a society, and whilst our politicians back this, we do not value public transport …. and that is why we do not financially support it.
    Until that happens (and let us be absolutely honest …. it won’t) we have to make do; and that means operating bus and train services where the current passengers want to travel.

    I don’t like this at all, but it is being pragmatic. We are where we are ….


    1. um, not sure I agree. It sounds like another of those excuses we’ve had for ever from people in the industry.

      Blame the passengers. They get what they deserve.

      For too many of us, too often; a journey is not an experience we want to repeat. For all sorts of reasons, which often aren’t under “anyone’s” control. Least of all, the passenger. But do the operators do all they can to try and make things better, or at least not worse? Ask in any other industry, and the answer is often obvious; yes, of couse; our business depends on it. But in passenger transport (and much of the privatised public sector, to be fair) of course not.

      In British public transportation, it’s often those who form the backbone of your service, the regular passengers, who fare worst. No business can be sustainable on that basis.

      As the old saying goes; charity begins at home. Of course, it doesn’t have to end there either, but that’s another story.


      1. Just to emphasise my point. The passengers aren’t the problem. I’m constantly surprised by just how loyal and patient they are. Are the operators at all grateful? You’d never know it.

        Liked by 1 person

  24. Where is the leadership?

    On the railways there has been a growth in headcount at DfT but to what benefit? No talk of improving productivity there.

    Passengers have had to put up with some frankly appalling reliability on train and bus and the strikes add to this. I have no opinion on the strikes as I really do not know enough, but it is amazing how quickly the essential workers during lockdown are now the ones having to provide greater efficiencies.

    The short term funding deals are no way to run a system and promoting bus use during a shortage of drivers might not be the best use of resources.


  25. The one thing that is known is the railways remain dysfunctional and that has not changed . The other issue is strangely on the railways costs have risen in spite of technology changes and the fact that far fewer staff should be needed

    Archaic restrictive practices on infrastructure repairs and renewal seem to be a big part of the problem. Line closures for repairs etc far from getting few and shorter are going in the other direction
    with regular line closers for weeks on end

    Renewed overhead lines which are supposed to have a lower failure rate than the old appear to have a higher failure rate

    Communications with customers when things do go wrong remains abysmal


  26. Um, I can’t help wondering if it all has anything to do with the American-imported management school obsession with lean and mean (not literally) , that has “worked” so successfully? over the last fifty years for the monoliths like General Electric, Boeing and General Motors. It’s much easier and trendy, not like old-fashioned resilience.


  27. Roger, I could not agree more with your summation of the whole current rail situation. In my opinion, the only sensible solution is that B.R. Mk.2., but probably minus the freight companies. The great importance of B.R. Mk 1 was that it stood apart from government and made its own decisions, but within laid down general parameters and budgets. It could be a very lean, mean, but efficient organisation, that often managed to make the value of a penny seem more like that of a pound! Sadly, it seems to be a feature of modern life that most politicians want to take on the mantle of instant experts about everything, but their meddling achieves very little that is positive.

    May I say, how useful and informative I find your blog. I really do not know how you manage to compile all the fieldwork, photography and text to such a high and comprehensive standard. Please keep up the good work.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. There is clearly a lack of coemption. Train drivers in the UK are the highest paid in the world but we get done of the worst services

    Time that driverless trains were introduced, The Waterloo and City line and many minor branch lines would be well suited to such operation


  29. The one common thing with public transport in the UK is it is no customer focussed nor is timekeeping and reliability seen as a priority


    1. Railways in the UK receive huge subsidies from the taxpayers, whilst offering a very poor and expensive service. So who are they operating services for? It looks like it’s for the benefit of their own management, staff and shareholders and certainly not for the traveling public. The same can be said of many bus operators.


  30. I definitely don’t agree that private companies can offer anything beneficial to transport, or really anything. Any time someone’s taking profit and not reinvesting in making a service better, that’s going to be bad news. But glad you came to the conclusion that British Rail 2 or something to that effect is the only way forward. Same with the buses. Cuts to crucial rural routes or reductions in frequency for services in places like where I am in Worthing can’t be accepted as normal or ok in any way. We need full nationalisation, and a change of economic system. Because this is all inevitable since Margaret Thatcher began wrecking the country before I was born. They want to get rid of public transport entirely. They refuse to invest in bicycle infrastructure. They want to push everyone into private cars, at a time when we need to get away from cars. And even driving in this country sucks. In the Netherlands, every form of transport is a pleasure. The opposite to us.


  31. I’ll point out, belatedly, that state owned London Underground sorted all these issues of Sunday overtime, unsocial hours payments and streamlining station grades back in 1991. This enabled a massive expansion in service in the mid 1990’s leading to huge increases in the numbers of passengers carried. So I support a state owned and directed BR.


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