If you follow me on Twitter you will have seen that recently I have had some lively discussions with a well respected member of the railway media regarding information given to the travelling public by train operating companies. I believe the public should be well aware of who is responsible for what on the railway, whereas my combateur believes the railway is one unit, and no one should be blamed for anything - the operating company dealing with all issues as though they are responsible, because they are the ones taking our money.
Except they're not are they. Let's look a little more closely at who pays for what. When I go to the station and buy a ticket who exactly am I paying? Well yes, I'm paying the operating company, who then pay the Government for the privilege of running trains. The operating company also pays Network Rail line rental - literally in this case. If a train is delayed due to the fault of the operating company they get fined by Network Rail. If the delay is the fault of infrastructure then they claim back compensation from Network Rail. There are armies of people whose sole job is to extract as many minutes delay as they can from an incident, and then make claims to the opposite party. I have seen a 3 minute delay to one train at Lewisham in Southeast London develop into over 5,000 minutes claimed due to snowball effects on other services.
So, if a train is delayed due to a signal failure it is the responsibility of Network Rail. If it's because of disruptive passengers, a train fault, or staff problems then it's down to the operating company. Seems all clear and crystal like. Except it's not. I've had passengers have a right go at me because they've been delayed by issues neither I, nor my employer had any control over, and that is simply not fair. It has always been something I've wondered - why there is not more education of the travelling public of exactly who is responsible for what on the railway, and I've reached the conclusion that the people who run the railway, and indeed some who make a living out of reporting on the railway, just don't want the people who pay to travel knowing.
I have been badgering the Association of British Commuters for well over a year now to produce a publication to lay to rest some of the myths about the railway. To educate the public so when things go wrong they know who is responsible, and don't take it out on the wrong people such as barrier staff, Conductors or Twitter teams. Despite several hints at "an announcement I'd like" there has been nothing, which surprises me as you'd think a passenger lead pressure group would want the truth out there. But it's all gone very quiet.
And then of course there is Network Rail. Owned by the State - us to be precise. So when you buy your ticket not only is some of your money going to Network Rail in line rental, it's also going to Network Rail through the taxation system, because it's your taxes that fund Network Rail! So in effect we are paying for all parts of the railway - the operator and the infrastructure maintainer. So you'd have thought that letting the public realise that if a signal continuously fails outside Norwich it has nothing to do with Greater Anglia but is down to Network Rail would be natural. It makes the railway transparent, and informs the public, which as fare AND taxpayers they surely have a right to know. In any other industry, if Government money is concerned, when something goes belly up there are inquiries galore. But not the railway, and I think I know why.
The operators run trains on behalf of the Government. Sub contracted. The Department of Transport dictate timetables, train length, most fares, specification of new rolling stock (mostly), how many staff on the train and more. Not many people know that, so if a train is frequently rammed they take it out on the operating company, who have to clear it with the D of T before they can lengthen it. So the it's the name on the train who gets the blame.
Yet think on this. Network Rail is owned and run by the Department of Transport. Of course they don't want the public knowing what it is responsible for because so much of the time it is infrastructure that goes wrong. Much better for the name on the train to get blamed - after all if a Government Department was seen to be badly running things that could cost votes. The operating companies are scapegoats so the public, who fund Network Rail are kept ignorant and so don't blame the Government! Sir Humphrey would be proud - "if you tell the public what they want to know - then they'll know and that could be disastrous". This must be why whenever Network Rail are mentioned by an operating company as being responsible for a delayed train there are shrieks of horror from parts of the industry, and the operating company instantly slapped down. Never let it be said customers got told the truth.
But it gets worse. The other day The Norwich - London mainline was disrupted because a freight train broke down. It happens. Trains/locos break down - just surprising some pedant didn't point out the train didn't break down but the locomotive did! Now if I'm in a traffic jam on the motorway and it comes over the radio "tailbacks on the A12 due to a broken down lorry" I don't immediately want all trucks banned from the roads, or the truck owner put in stocks on a roundabout. It is just letting me know why I am sitting there twiddling my thumbs. If I'm on a train and hear of a delay due to a broken down freight train I'm not going to want the driver sacked, or the freight operating company dissolved! It's just one of those things, and the more the public know the easier they will take things. I DO know that from experience. The public get far more agitated when information is withheld, than they do when they're given the facts. If it's a shared line with other operators, and one of their trains is causing the delay then the public have a right to know, as their money pays for the railway. Fact isn't slander. Fact isn't libellous. Information is vital in this day and age. And believe me - if I'm on a train stuck in the middle of nowhere, as I was a couple of years ago, and by looking at the live diagrams I see a freight train has broken down in front I'm going to let those round me know, to protect the poor sods on board from getting extra grief. Of course there are some who'll have a go at the person in uniform anyway, but even if one person doesn't as a result of the information it's worth it.
So, as we, the travelling public pay for all aspects of the railway either through fares or taxes don't we have a right to transparency, information and fact, or are the railways so badly managed that everything has to be hushed up so the truth doesn't out? Makes you wonder, but my opinion, or stance is not going to change. The ONLY way our railway is one railway, as I'm frequently told it is, is that the public pay for it, in many, many ways. They have a right to be told, regardless of which sensitive soul in an office miles from the front line it upsets.
It used to be let the train take the strain. Now it's let the train take the blame.