Current train ‘issues’ in the West Midlands and beyond…!

Frustrating. Annoying. Inconvenient.

This week we have seen London Midland cancel a significant number of services every day – over 400 and counting with another 133 planned for tomorrow (Saturday 27th October).

The reason? My understanding is that London Midland train drivers have been poached by another operator – the going rate for driver salaries has been upped and London Midland have been caught short.  We are told we can expect this performance to carry on until more LM drivers have gone through the training process which should be just before Christmas… fingers crossed!

How has it come to this?  Well i have been told that LM is extremely sorry (i expect that but it doesn’t really help) and that they are working to rectify this (i should hope so but i hope it doesn’t carry on like this until December) and also that they do run 1,300 trains each day (irrelevant to a passenger wanting to go home after work – or needing to get to work on time!)

Birmingham Chamber of Commerce have come out and stated that this must not continue and that it may potentially harm a significant number of businesses in the West Midlands.  This is interesting on 2 levels – firstly, i am pleased that we have entrenched the knowledge that transport plays a vital role in supporting the economy; secondly, the Chamber has recognised that it is vital to speak out against the train operator on behalf of the West Midlands, a positive step and a welcome one (not that they never did before, it is just that they don’t mind giving this private company a kicking because of this currently feeble performance).

It certainly brings into sharp focus our attitude on the railways.  The renationalisation debate is topical and the mood appears to be shifting to a more favourable position and the recognition that the current system is fundamentally flawed.  The West Coast Main Line franchise debacle showed up the system and process as unnecessarily complicated, too expensive an burdensome as well as questioning whether this really ought to be taken away from DfT – better devolve control for local/regional rail to regional transport authorities and form a national not for profit intercity rail operator.

As for the current crisis it demonstrates that whoever runs the railways, whether private or public, will have problems – private companies do not bring the amazing panacea that some would have us believe.  The striking fact is that the East Coast Main Line currently being run by Directly Operated Railways (ie a DfT, renationalised company) is generating more profit than the previous private operators – and that money is of course coming back to the Exchequer…

This last week, and these coming weeks, have shown that we should not believe that privatisation has brought better railways or less cost to the public purse.  I get cross when Richard Branson claims credit for the investment in the West Coast Main Line – £9bn infrastructure and the fleet of new Pendolino trains – when it was all paid for by us, the taxpayers!

At the same time, just arguing to bring back British Rail and instantly renationalise the whole rail network is too blunt and not sufficiently focussed on improving our lot.  This can be done more cutely.  The concession model, taking revenue risk away from the train operator so that they provide the service set and specified, as done by TfL with LOROL for the London Overground network should be considered for regional rail authorities (bringing together Integrated Transport Authorities and the other local transport authorities in the relevant network area).

As I mentioned earlier, a national not for profit intercity and high speed rail train operator bringing together the West and East Coast Main Lines along with the Great Western, East Anglian and Cross Country Main Lines can be set up now! Hold onto the East Coast, don’t relet the West Coast or the Great Western and wait for the other two franchises to expire and bring them in.

One thing is for sure, things cannot go on like this on our railways.

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