Return to Archive -by date - by topic - 2001
On occasion in the distant past we criticised British Rail for placing the running of the railway ahead of the customer. What really infuriated railway managers was accusing them of ‘operational convenience', the connection that wasn't quite, the late night empty coaching stock move that went past passengers waiting for the last train, the preference for 3,000 tonne block trains over wagonload.
And we suspect that when railway managers laughingly repeat the old chestnut about being able to run a decent railway if it wasn't for the passengers, they may still be only half joking. But sectorisation in the 1980s, saw the business sectors do much to improve customer focus, both at the macro operational level and face to face with the passenger.
That final BR timetable in which Regional Railways and InterCity actively cooperated to maximise onward connections would seem radical today, even if the Association of Train Operating Companies dared aspire to it. And we recall the Customer Action Teams (CAT) pioneered by London Midland Region which saw groups of managers and staff sent to help the train crew deal with passengers' problems when trains failed or were delayed.
And today, some train operating companies have successfully taken forward the accent on customer service introduced by InterCity, Regional Railways and, even, Network SouthEast. Sea Containers President James Sherwood sums up the approach by promising South West Trains customers a GNER style ‘treat', rather than the Stagecoach ‘treatment' should he win the South West Trains franchise. Nor should freight be forgotten. Freightliner, for example, has a driver dedicated to one heavy haul customer's service.
So, it can be done. But as the train operators try to make operational convenience a thing of the past, outside bodies seem to be working in the reverse direction.
Take the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations. This magazine has campaigned long and hard to have errors in drafting repealed – and been accused of being uncaring in the process.
In fact, the anomalies we fought against disadvantaged all passengers and the disabled worst than most. Thankfully requirements which made warning sounds on closing doors illegal, leaving mums with prams as much as guide dogs to be trapped, and other nonsenses have now been repealed. That said new threats to passenger service are emerging and the price of everyone's mobility is constant vigilance
Elsewhere in this issue Roger Ford exposes more passenger unfriendly anomalies in the new Rule Book. Once again we will no doubt be subject to emotional blackmail as the Health & Safety Executive tries to defend the indefensible.
As for recognition of the fact that railways are the safest part of the national ground transport system and that unrealistic, or over zealous, safety regulation can send passengers to their statistical deaths on less safe modes. Well, we live in hope.
But these inconveniences to the travelling public are developed in offices over months and even years. It is one thing to suffer as a result of faceless bureaucrats – that is the human condition. But to be mistreated by those who have supposedly come to help you is quite another.
As a result of Health & Safety Legislation applying to the post privatisation Railtrack, the British Transport Police has gone into Sweeny mode and transformed accident sites into ‘scenes of crime'. We were astonished to learn from the HSE's preliminary report into the Ladbroke Grove accident that the BTP took 3000 statements from witnesses and experts and collated 500,000 – yes half a million - pages of evidence. Despite this, a prosecution could not be supported.
Unfortunately this zealotry is being applied irrespective of the nature of the accident. Thus, when a point blade broke near Stafford in October, derailing a train despite the observant driver only just failing to stop in time, this innocuous incident was declared a scene of crime and the West Coast Main Line closed for three hours.
Even worse was the well documented event at Mossend on 26 November where a Virgin express derailed at 15mile/h due to gauge spread on a diversionary route. There is not space to detail the appalling way passengers and train crew were treated. But for a passenger who had just received a call saying that a parent had died to be held on the train for several hours before being ‘released' is simply unacceptable.
As is the fact that Virgin's customer services manager, who in CAT style drove to the derailment site with a car full of food and drink ready to help passengers, was prevented from even entering the site because she was a ‘suspect', a term covering all railway operating and engineering experts who are debarred from the site. This, of course, means that the likely cause of the accident cannot be determined immediately.
Meanwhile a Member of Parliament who visited the site was ushered through the barrier by the police.
When the Editor of a contemporary criticised such police behaviour, he received a personal visit from a BTP Assistant Chief Constable who insisted that Virgin Trains was happy with the way in which his Force had handled the incident. In fact, Virgin had expressed concern over the prolonged detention of passengers, the last was not free to leave the holding centre until his name and address had been taken a full five hours after the incident.
What stands out in disability regulation, safety and the police is that they are in thrall to the Abilene paradox, where people do things collectively they would not consider doing as individual.
As we found when we attended a conference on the RVAR, organised by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, far from being verbally abused, we were made welcome and enjoyed a day devoid of zealotry among some very inspiring people. Similarly, when we meet safety people, the conversation may robust, but the irrational is not defended blindly. And we cannot believe that, faced with someone who had just learned of a bereavement, the BTP Chief Constable would not do all in his powers to get that person to their grieving family as quickly as possible.
So, much though campaigning is our stock in trade, we feel that what is needed is a high level seminar bringing together all those external bodies who have the power to make or mar customer service – particularly when things go wrong. What better than a forum on neutral ground, to air differences, resolve the way forward and draw a line under past misunderstandings. What better way for the Railway Forum to demonstrate its renaissance?