Today tens of thousands of rail passengers are facing huge delays to their journeys between Kings Cross and the north of England. Last night hundreds of fans of Leeds United were stranded for hours as trains were delayed and cancelled following damage to overhead wires on the route. Some were injured when a coach ferrying them was involved in an accident.
Whilst the overhead wire damage and the coach crash were not the result of the rail privatisation, the level of ensuing chaos is. The problem with the rail network in the UK is that it is not a joined up or well coordinated network. It is a hotch potch of rival companies running timetables to suit themselves, not their customers. Wheras under British Rail, every effort was made to ensure good connections between services, there is no incentive at all to ensure that a train run by one company connects with a train run by another company to take someone to their final destination.
In the days of British Rail, if the East Coast line was blocked, emergency services would be run on the Midland Mainline, which can also serve Leeds, York and beyond. The trains are slower, but they get you there. With the franchise system, this is not an option. By the time the agreements have been put in place, the line has been fixed. In the days of British Rail, such things could be hastily arranged as everyone worked for the same company.
Whilst the West Coast main line was being renovated, there was a shortage of train slots between London and Manchester. An interim service was introduced between St Pancras and Manchester on the Midland mainline. Destinations which had no direct trains to Manchester on the route had a new service, which for many proved popular. At the end of the works, the service was withdrawn and the customers who had grown used to this service were summarily deprived of a useful connection. All of this was done to ensure that the investment in the West Coast delivered maximum profits for the franchisee.
We see all manner of service changes, all of which are designed to increase the profits of the companies running the services rather than to ensure a good service for passengers. As a regular user of the Thameslink Service from Mill Hill for many years, I remember when British Rail first opened the service. There were eight trains and hour between Mill Hill and the city. Four were slow and four were fast and the intervals were regular. Despite the fact that the route is three times busier now and Mill Hill is awash with customers, we have 5/6 trains and hour with no regular pattern. There is no logic to the timings, other than that they suit First Capital Connect.
The government is committed to spending billions on upgrading the Midland mainline (the line which runs through Mill Hill). Whilst this is a good thing and should have been done years ago, the project echoes the stupidity of the whole disjointed approach to privatisation. Rather than using the scheme to leverage the maximum benefit for the whole network and improving resilience, there are all manner of short spurs which will not be electrified, wasting huge opportunities to improve cross country routes, freight routes and emergency backup routes.
I was reading an article yesterday about the new boss of the Crossrail project. He said that rail improvements in London were not generally about building new lines, rather they are about seeing what bits have been closed down or neglected, which could be reopened. In our neck of the woods, there are several obvious candidates. We have a new 10,000 seat rugby stadium at Barnet Copthall, next to an abandonded and largely intact tube route which connects with Mill Hill East. To reopen this would be easy and cheap and would save us the parking mayhem we suffer on match days.
Another example is the Dudden Hill rail line between Crickelewood and Acton. This line isa lightly used freight only line. The Brent Cross Light rail scheme has proposed using this for a tram style service, linking Brent Cross with Heathrow Airport. Very little new track would be needed, just a short spur to Brent Cross. It would take thousands of cars off the road and also give the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon a train service. Sadly such a no brainer of a scheme has been turned down by the people with no brains at Barnet Council, who refuse to support the scheme. As a result the Brent Cross redevelopment scheme will bring a parking meltdown to the West of the Borough.
I believe that it is ridiculous that something of such vital national interest as the rail network has no organisation which oversees it and makes sure plans give the best value for the passengers who use the service. We desperately need a new British Rail organisation to get the network back on track.