“Railroads, frankly, are not up to the task.” This quote could belong to any opposition politician.
“They are bogged down in strikes, which is letting passengers and freight customers down. Historically, they have not been able to provide significant improvements at a good price for taxpayers.”
How nice then to hear this from the minister directly in charge of railroads: Transportation Secretary Mark Harper. Addressing George Bradshaw in London on Tuesday evening, he clarified the decrepit nature of train travel and promised to improve it.
Passengers want trains that are reliable, punctual and affordable. Many rail travelers say their experience doesn’t meet all three criteria.
“Railroads need fundamental reform, and we will provide it,” Mr. Harper promises. Instead of civil servants in the Department of Transport (DfT) managing all aspects of train traffic, the ball will be run by a new “leading mind” known as the Great British Railways.
“The role of ministers is not to tinker with operational decisions,” he says.
Importantly, Mr. Harper wants to rationalize tariffs by unraveling the anomalies that successive governments have allowed for at least 55 million different tariffs.
So what do you notice? Briefing provided DailyTelegraph over the weekend marked the abolition of return tickets, with a long overdue shift to one-way fares.
Since railroad privatization in the 1990s, countless anomalies have been built into the fare system in an unsuccessful attempt to protect passengers from price hikes. The absurdity that many return tickets cost less than 1 percent more than one-way tickets is long overdue. The only way to do this is to cut many of the existing one-time fees by almost half.
It seemed that the measure would be launched across the country. It now appears that only LNER, the state highway on the East Coast, will make changes in the next few months. A trial is currently underway to propose exactly this concept, but only from Edinburgh, Newcastle and Leeds to London.
The move itself introduced even more anomalies (anyone from Durham to York bound for the capital one way must buy a ticket from Newcastle to save money). The wider experiment will affect shorter flights such as London-Stevenage and Durham-Newcastle, as well as other operators operating on the same routes.
Let’s hope that unintended consequences will accelerate the general movement towards uniform pricing. But there are still many shortcomings that have led to the practice of “ticket splitting”: the legitimate exploitation of anomalies in the fare system to drive down rail fares. A Didcot Dodge will almost always save a small fortune for a passenger between London and Bristol by purchasing one flight to Oxfordshire and then a second flight to their final destination.
As attractive as the fare may be, if the service is hopelessly unreliable, passengers will continue to leave.
The Minister of Transport emphasizes that the current disagreements with the RMT union and the Aslef machinists’ union will only be resolved when reforms are adopted, such as the universal inclusion of Sundays in the work week. This suggests that there will be even more disruptions in the next few months.
But Mr Harper admits: “If left untreated, we will drive passengers away due to poor performance, which will result in less service, which will result in more passenger churn, and so on.”
Will it work? Nigel Harris, Editor-in-Chief Railway magazine thinks it can. He applauds “the idea of DfT moving away from micromanagement”.
Mr Harris says: “It’s not their experience, they’re not risk averse. The only time the railroad worked any normal was when it was managed by a whole bunch of specialists.”
I will observe and, if the work of the railway does not improve, I will wait.
Credit: www.independent.co.uk /