Train chaos is a private, not a public sector failure

Author
Published date
05 Jun 2018
As both Northern Trains and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) experience prolonged meltdown it is worth remembering that this chaos is a private, not a public sector failure.

The Train Operating Companies, and Chris Grayling may have tried to pin this on Network Rail but the truth is that a publicly owned and unified service would have taken steps to address the lack of drivers, plan infrastructure development, and avoid the cancellations.

The current crisis is the result of a whole new timetable with new routes being introduced across very busy lines before there were sufficient drivers trained to support them. Train companies typically run on driver overtime from a skeleton staff anyway so even at the best of times there is limited slack in the system. When that slack disappears the result is catastrophic service failures and Thameslink getting dragged by Poundland on twitter.

Chris Grayling has spent much of the last two weeks blaming this on delays in introducing electrification by Network Rail: i.e. blaming the public sector. Unfortunately some members of the public have been taking it out on the staff who have been working their hardest to keep the system running while becoming the face of a system failure they were powerless to prevent.

The truth is, that this situation could be avoided – or at least very significantly ameliorated if the rail system was one, publicly owned and coherent whole.  As the McNulty review identified as far back as 2011:

 “multiple industry players, together with misaligned incentives ... has made it difficult to secure co-operative effort at operational interfaces, or active industry engagement in cross-industry activities which need to be undertaken for the common good”

Under a system where track and train were unified under a single guiding mind, that authority would have been in a position to ensure sufficient driver cover was available to facilitate training on new routes, that the introduction of the new timetable and routes aligned better with training new drivers, or that the impact of delays to electrification were communicated across the system so every part could plan effectively. In short, much of this chaos would have been avoided.

So wherever the DfT, GTR, Northern Rail or anyone else attempts to place the blame remember that the real fault lies with privatisation that fragmented the system in the first place.