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Railwatch 072 - July 1997

Just muddling through

Well what a surprise the election was! The size of the majority makes it possible for the new government to time any changes, if there are to be any, so we have to wait and see what is in store for the long-suffering railway.

The pluses are the recent examples of proposed investment in new rolling stock.

But this has to be set against the lack of liaison, the non sharing of lessons learned and the tendency to walk away from a muddle with the words "it's not our company's fault". To meet shareholders' requirements, to make a profit, to cut back staff and to rationalise services at the fringes are all fair if you accept that is what the government of the day required of the private companies.

Some of the new equipment, new ideas and customer responses are first class.

The timetable is easy to operate now with plenty of leeway to meet the requirements of the Passenger's Charter.

A train journey can now be a wonderful experience. But it can easily degenerate into a muddle, a perturbation it was called to explain my failed connection at Reading.

Reading is a good example of the good and the bad.

To watch Reading Box at work on a good morning is a delight to the professional.

The station facilities, the refreshment alternatives and quality, variety of beers and other commercial outlets are excellent.

That not all the passenger information systems work and have not done so for many months now underlines the problems for Great Western, Thames Trains, South West Trains and for Virgin Cross Country, all of whom ply their trade there.

Information provision is a problem.

On Easter Saturday travelling from Liverpool to Newcastle afforded no problem.

Making sure to examine all the posters exhibited on engineering work I became immediately aware of work that weekend at Stafford in the Earlestown area and as far away as South Wales and Bridgend.

But returning to Newcastle station to catch the 17.11 back to Lime Street, I found it departed at 16.50! Engineering work had taken over the complete section from Northallerton to Ferryhill.

The young lady at Newcastle, although promising "customer information" seemed to regard Liverpool as on another planet.

Her world ended where the GNER Main Line ended. She could get people to York but no further. She neither knew nor cared about timetables for other than "her" line.

Finally back at Liverpool some 60 minutes late there were no notices to warn passengers of TransPennine problems. This idea of giving Line of Route information only is unsatisfactory

I also looked at the Virgin West Coast alterations to services in the Warrington and Glasgow areas covering weekends in April.

As a document it is ideal but it does not include CrossCountry services over the same route, and does not include the Manchester Airport to Scotland services. In fact there is nowhere can you find the complete services on the days in question in one document.

On 22 April travelling south from Crewe towards Craven Arms, a telling example came my way.

At Craven Arms the passengers on the 8.33 Manchester to Cardiff train were told there was a broken rail on the opposite line and they would have to have a bus service to Leominstcr.

A freight train went through over the southbound line which was denied to the passenger train and a series of muddles took place with the provision of the bus and the onward journey.

Staff demonstrated few passenger service skills and a complete lack of understanding about how a railway works.

I can forgive the latter for they have not been trained and "know not what they do" but customer services were supposed to improve in the privatised world.

Lack of expertise makes staff unable to retrieve a situation when there is mishap. The results is a disaster in customer terms.

So what should the new Minister for Railways do? Every person writing about railways has told him so I might as wel1. First ensure the regulatory bodies use the powers they have.

Next make sure the correct training is given to staff. I cite the example of the Maidenhead train fire report recommendations on staff training which do not seem to have filtered through to staff.

Finally the Minister must deal firmly deal with poor performing railway companies.

A shake-up is also long overdue at the Department of Transport.

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