THE utter chaos that is Northern Rail’s emergency timetable, after the confusion delivered by its totally shambolic new timetable, ought to be the nail in the coffin of its franchise.
It should illuminate the “exit this way” sign for the franchising system introduced by John Major’s Tory government over two decades ago and for Transport Secretary Chris “Failing” Grayling.
He has presided over the timetable fiasco affecting GTR Southern and Northern, approving the privateers’ plans publicised just a fortnight before they went live.
It beggars belief that they would prepare timetables, knowing that they lacked the staff numbers to implement them.
Equally incredible is that new timetables would be superseded by emergency timetables to obviate the need for cancellations but which would involve similar levels of lateness or non-arrival.
Most stunning of all is that the Transport Secretary, who oversees the rail network, has responded by making himself unavailable to answer MPs in the House of Commons.
It is difficult to argue with Labour MP Lisa Nandy’s mocking comment that Grayling “is having to rearrange or cancel meetings with MPs about Northern today because he underestimated demand and cannot make the timetable work.
“The DfT did not foresee the large numbers of MPs who would want a meeting or that they might need to make a statement. Is there any understanding of the scale of this crisis in Whitehall?”
The answer to that question is a no-brainer.
The only constant in Grayling’s position is his dogged devotion to privatisation and his party’s discredited franchising system that has brought unjustified dividends for train operating company shareholders at the expense of unreliable services, exorbitant fares and government subsidies.
He told operators and Tory MPs over the weekend to blame problems on publicly owned Network Rail to divert blame from the private operating companies and Theresa May’s office confirmed today that this is the official line.
Grayling, it said, has been “in constant talks with Network Rail and he has been clear to them that they were too late in finalising the timetable changes and that this must not happen again.”
Even if this were true, the Transport Secretary is in charge of Network Rail and so bears responsibility for its failings. He can’t shrug them off.
Nor should it be forgotten that Network Rail is in public hands precisely because of the failings of the private sector which ran its predecessor Railtrack and was to blame for fatal crashes by putting private profits before public safety.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald is right to point out that Grayling remains in post because of the Prime Minister’s weakness. She cannot sack him or other ministerial duds such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for fear of triggering Tory internecine warfare.
Departmental chaos, including Grayling’s failure to answer to MPs, is mirrored by the stunning revelation that yesterday’s planned annual conference of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) was cancelled at the last minute.
The body that represents the profits-obsessed train operators prefers to go to ground rather than undergo questioning for its unjustifiable incompetence.
The people facing public anger on a daily basis are the rail staff who are utterly without blame for the mess their employers and the government have created.
As rail union RMT general secretary Mick Cash puts it, the privateers “are not fit to run a bath let alone a railway.”
The failing privateers should have their franchises cancelled and run as non-profit operations as a first step to returning our railways to public ownership.
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