Thursday 16 June 2022

The Treaty of Clapham Junction

Sorry, but you won’t persuade me to get cross with the rail unions. This is because most of the train disruption I have experienced has been organised by the rail companies or the Government, not by RMT or Aslef militants.

For example, I have been suddenly bundled out of my homebound carriage on winter nights by shouting men and made to wait ages on the platform in a bitter wind, because the privatised company has decided to divert my train. I have been urged to go home and not travel because of various stupid panics about wind, a half-inch of snow or a bit of hot weather.

Hardly a week goes by when they do not rob me of precious time by holding me up on the excuse of ‘signal failures’, ‘broken rails’, ‘track circuit failures’ or wild over-reactions to sightings of trespassers. 

Many trains are cancelled without warning or explanation, behaviour that would smash up the carefully planned days of most people, though I have learned to cope because I have come to expect it. Almost every train I take can be guaranteed to be late, on the excuse of ‘congestion’.

This is a nonsensical pretext on a timetabled, signal-controlled railway system whose movements are all intricately planned to match capacity with activity. It is not as if an unexpected surge of juggernaut lorries or white vans has suddenly gummed up the tracks with unpredictable traffic, or an overturned minibus at a key junction has caused the trains to back up for miles.

The excuse is pure tripe, marinated in bilge. Congestion might be a real thing at Spaghetti Junction or on the M25. On the railways, it means that the people in charge have messed up and take us for fools. 

For more than a year now, my regular line has been running short, overcrowded trains because of metal fatigue on flashy new carriages, recently bought for them by the taxpayer for billions and billions of borrowed pounds.

At my arrival station in London, elaborate measures are taken every morning to ensure that the exit gates from the platforms are mostly locked against passengers trying to get to work, so causing needless claustrophobic crowds around the few exits that are available.

These are some of the obvious, deliberate acts which — if I thought these people could organise anything — would be evidence of a concerted plan to drive people on to the roads. You could add the seats as hard as ironing boards, the maddening, interminable announcements, and the increasingly dismal catering.

People now don’t believe me when I say that on the Oxford to Paddington Express, every weekday morning, you could once get a beautifully cooked bacon, egg, sausage and mushroom breakfast, with good coffee, freshly-made toast and an actual jar of Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade ready for use on the crisp white tablecloth. More recently, the trains still had convivial buffet cars, where you could go for a drink, a sandwich or a chat. Almost all of these are now gone.

But there have been deeper blows than these. Near my Oxford home — and this is typical of most parts of the country — there are now several, sizeable market towns with no rail service at all. These are handsome, flourishing places where people like to live. But if they want to come and go by train, they must drive miles to a distant station.

The trains that connected them to the mainlines also used to stop at dozens of villages, meaning the deepest, most hidden parts of the countryside were connected with nearby big towns and with the whole wide world. Now, in reality, it is a car or nothing. Country people know they cannot rely on the bus as they once relied on the train.

Closing stations and tracks because they didn’t make a profit was lunatic enough — Acacia Avenue doesn’t make a profit, and nor does the B4092 — but was just part of a government rail strike lasting 50 years. Thriving and useful mainlines and vital alternative routes were idiotically shut, against the advice of every sensible voice.

Here’s an example of the folly. Every summer, the trains to Devon and Cornwall are wildly overcrowded by holidaymakers. In many winters the same line is cut at Dawlish by violent storms. This would not matter half so much if the Government had not systematically destroyed the alternative mainline to the West, which ran north of Dartmoor and was, incidentally, heartbreakingly beautiful. 

Sorry, but a few days of strikes does not compare in malice, damage or stupidity to the militant, fanatical anti-rail policies followed by Tory and Labour governments for decades. And those who want to accuse railway workers of greed might look at the fortunes made by privatised railway companies, while they make the system worse.

So here is what I propose, and you might call it the Treaty of Clapham Junction, which is where I suggest it should be signed. The Government must end its long war on railways, especially mad in an age of high fuel costs and justifiable anger at pollution and noise.

It must forget vanity projects such as HS2 and concentrate entirely on reliable medium-speed services that actually work and which people can afford. It must put back the lines it ripped up in the 1960s, and electrify them where possible. It must reopen the country stations.

It must renationalise the whole lot, recognising that the country which invented railways did so because rail transport is uniquely suited to its size and landscape. It must grasp that rail is a national benefit, helping to keep the country clean, quiet, healthy and connected: not a thing to be franchised and milked. 

And it must all work together, not be cut up into a jigsaw of jumbled bits and pieces. Lastly, it must cut fares to the levels you find in the rest of Europe, sweeping away the mad, incomprehensible system we have now. It might bring back breakfast, too.

In return, the rail unions must agree that they will not go on strike again as long as this agreement is kept. It will be the best bargain they will ever get for their members and for the public. And once it is agreed, and starts to work, we will all wonder why we did not do it years ago.

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