When television’s Richard Wilson was charged £139 for forgetting his senior railcard during the Channel 4 ‘Train Journeys from Hell’ programme, the One Foot in the Grave star couldn’t believe it.
‘I presume this is going to happen on the way back,’ he cried. ‘I’m going to be charged £280, which is ridiculous.’ At one point during filming, Wilson decided to sit in the toilet for lack of seating in the carriage. ‘Is it always like this?’, he asked a fellow passenger.
It’s probably not every day you come across Victor Meldrew in the toilets of your commuter train. But no doubt the experience of being on an overcrowded carriage with one person’s elbow in your face and another screaming dinner instructions into your ear is a familiar one.
The government claims that initiatives such as High Speed Two, the proposed high-speed line between London and the Midlands, will change all of this. They hope it’ll turn us back into a nation of train lovers who want nothing more than to spend a day watching the scenic British countryside roll past as we sit back and relax in our luxury carriages.
But as the McNulty review made clear yesterday, it’s going to take far more than high-speed rail services and refurbished trains to transform our experience of the railways. The industry doesn’t simply need a facelift, it needs a complete overhaul in structure, pricing and operation.
In his report, Sir Roy McNulty, the former Civil Aviation Authority chairman, said the rail industry needs to cut costs by 30 per cent by 2019 to bring it into line with other European railways. He advised the government to undertake a full review of fares policy and structures, ‘aiming to move towards a system that is seen to be less complex and more equitable.’
The main culprits in our poor level of service, according to the report, is fragmentation of structures and interfaces; the ways in which the role of government and industry have evolved; ineffective incentives; and a franchising system that doesn’t encourage cost reduction.
McNulty’s solution, however, is not as radical as some might have hoped. Among other things, he proposes simplification of the system, balancing fares and improving inefficient work practices. Implementing all his recommendations, he believes, could save the public coffers between £700m and £1bn annually by 2019.
Responding to the review, Prof Rod Smith, president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: ‘The report falls short of recommending a wholesale restructuring of the railways and it will remain to be seen whether the proposals will be enough to address the inefficiencies of the current system.
‘Key tests for the new system will be the speed at which new, more efficient technologies can be adopted and whether there will be sufficient confidence from the engineering supply chain to make the investments needed to improve the efficiency of railway projects and operations.’
Technology’s role in all of this is largely focused on the improving information systems, enhancing communication and increasing the sale of tickets — all of these issues have suffered from a lack of co-ordinated action across the industry. But the report doesn’t detail any radical high-tech plans that would provide a silver bullet solution.
And perhaps that’s because there isn’t one. This could be the one area where a common sense approach will provide far better gains to the travelling public than any high-tech system could.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for radical technological solutions in the rail network. But before that happens, we need sensible solutions that bring the industry together, and that is something politicians still need to work on.
Innovation flourishes under good conditions and the rail network needs to get the basics right before any real change can happen.