Ben Sledge 15th August 2018
Most people increasingly hate getting the train, and it feels like every week there is a new problem or complaint with services in England. From Jeremy Corbyn apparently not being able to find a seat, to the London Underground being too hot, it seems as though the trains in our country are just not delivering a good enough service.
Train punctuality and reliability has fallen by 6% over the past 10 years, from 79% to 73%, and customer satisfaction with the services has remained at rock bottom, according to official Transport Focus data.
It is easy to see why commuters are dissatisfied, because in the same time period, rail fares have increased by 40%, which is one-and-a-half times higher than inflation (26%), and today they have risen again.
Today it was revealed that train fares are going up by 3.2% in line with the Retail Price Index, a measure of inflation based on how much retailers pay for goods and services. The fact that price rises are based on that index — rather than how much wages have risen (2.5%), for example — is bizarre (even those who set the index say that) but after the year that passengers have had, it’s simply crazy.
While this dissatisfaction with train services is nationwide, some train services are better than others. The London Underground bears the brunt of many people’s train-based tirades, but Northern Rail services are arguably much worse.
Many of the trains running on Northern Rail services are repurposed buses that were destined for scrap in the 1980s
Many issues commuters have with Transport for London (TfL), which runs the Underground services, are to do with strike action disrupting normal services. However, as strikes are anomalous days and all rail services are subject to them, this issue is not Underground-specific.
The London Underground was first opened in 1863, and while it may seem like some of the train carriages are also 150 years old, in reality, the oldest trains are on the Piccadilly line and are from the 1970s. This obviously isn’t ideal, but TfL has recently agreed a deal with Siemens to replace all of these trains in the next five years. As a part of the deal, they are also increasing the size of their fleet, and the number of trains per hour on the line will increase from 24 to 27.
In comparison, many of the trains running on Northern Rail services are repurposed buses that were destined for scrap in the 1980s. What was intended as a short-term fix has ended up lasting for over 30 years, and with no current plans to modernise the fleet, it seems that the buses could be running on our tracks for decades to come.
This is symptomatic of a large number of problems that stem from a lack of funding for train services outside of London. While services are privately owned, the government funds a lot of infrastructure and modernisation through Network Rail. IPPR, a think-tank based in the north of England, found that London receives £4,155 per person in investment, compared to £1,600 in the North, a gap of £2,555 per person. The lack of spending in the North causes huge problems for services such as Northern Rail, which desperately needs to modernise both infrastructure and its trains in order to bring a better service to commuters.
Northern Rail took the opportunity to train its drivers on electric tracks before the government paused and then cancelled the plans
Northern Rail often cites a “lack of drivers” as the reason for delays or cancellations, but in reality this is partially a Network Rail problem as well. Northern Rail has an adequate number of drivers, but each driver needs to be trained on the specific line they will be driving, in the specific engine.
The current Conservative government promised modernisation in their 2015 election manifesto, most importantly electrification to major parts of Sheffield and Lake District tracks, which are used in some long distance journeys also. Northern Rail took the opportunity to train its drivers on electric tracks before the government paused and then cancelled the plans. Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling claimed that the cancellation was to “explore the possibility of deploying alternative-fuel trains”, however the National Audit Office revealed it was part of a plan to save money.
Ultimately this meant that Northern Rail drivers needed to be retrained, causing a lack of trained drivers for working services.
However, Network Rail can’t be a scapegoat for all of Northern’s problems. Management issues became increasingly apparent after lots of middle-managers were made redundant in order to cut costs, and as a result new timetables were poor, and delays and cancellations common.
Currently only half of Northern trains arrive at their destination on time
Earlier this year Northern Rail put out an “emergency timetable” in order to cut down on last-minute cancellations, but in reality cut 165 (6%) of their services. The measures did not help, and the service remains chaotic — currently only half of Northern trains reach at their destination on time.
At the time of writing, 81% of Northern services were on time at arrival, compared to 96% of TfL. Both services are performing slightly above their monthly averages for services on time, but are either side of the national average, which is around 90%.
However, delays and cancellations are only the start of the problem for Northern Rail. Without major overhaul to both the tracks and the trains themselves, journey times will remain excessive. It takes over an hour to travel the 45 miles from Manchester to Leeds, but only two hours to travel from Manchester to London, which is nearly five times further.
Despite government spending, frequent improvements, and overall a more reliable and comfortable service on the London Underground, only 48% of commuters on the Underground are happy with the services provided by TfL, just 4% more than are happy with Northern Rail services that are comparatively worse on every scale.
Commuters on Northern services will pay the same 3.2% increase in fares as commuters on the Tube or anywhere else in the country, but they will get very little out of it, as it’s hard to imagine that their services will improve.
Main image: A pacer train by Ian Britton
Ben Sledge 15th August 2018