Gale`s View – 14th December 2016
I have, for nearly thirty-four years, sought to represent that band of long-suffering rail commuters from East Kent who pay large sums of money out of taxed incomes to do battle, morning and night with the vagaries of the Kent Coastal railway service. With the huge support of a handful of people willing to put themselves out in the interests of their fellow-travellers, particularly John Nicholson, Bob Parsons and the late and enormously dedicated and missed Roy Coppins, we have struggled, under several operating regimes, to secure modest improvements. It has not, to date, been an unqualified success but there have been some achievements.
It is easy to blame `privatisation` of the train operating companies and the organisation responsible for track, signalling, points and stations for all of the ills of the railways and of course many, who wish to hark back to the `golden age` of nationalisation do so. Personally I do not accept that that golden age – and I have lived through most of it – ever existed. I recall trains that were old, smelly, dirty, draughty, cold, overcrowded, unreliable, slow and very frequently late. Successive governments, unwilling to place an additional burden of taxation upon those that do not use trains to subsidise those that do, failed to invest in improvement in infrastructure or in the modernisation of rolling stock. In the case of the Kent Coast line, built on the cheap in the late nineteenth century, with gradients instead of cuttings and with few overtaking points between Thanet and London, history has exacerbated the weaknesses and that, coupled with London termini with too few platforms to receive a growing number of trains , has led, at peak times, to `traffic jams` and consequent delays on the tracks.
I hold to the view that the re-privatisation of the railways (for of course they were originally privately owned) has led to investment on a scale, albeit at cost to the travelling public, that no government would have made. The replacement of `slam-door` rolling stock with modern train sets is the obvious manifestation of that investment but it would be wrong to assume that that is all that has been achieved. It is easy to be wise after the event but with glorious hindsight it was a mistake – and as one who voted for the package I am entitled to say this – to separate control of the track from those operating the trains. Railtrack, of course, failed and was taken back into public ownership by the same Blair government that then awarded new franchises that allowed the Train operating Companies (TOCs) to disproportionately increase fares irrespective of performance. Nevertheless, to be fair to the TOCs, and I wish to be, they have for many years carried the blame for failings of infrastructure outside of their own control. I believe that Network Rail has failed the travelling public and the TOCs. I recall a meeting, many years ago and held at Margate Station, at which I was assured that the newly re-nationalised company would invest in track and signalling and points and modern technology that would allow trains travelling from East Kent to London to safely overtake using both lines and to run more closely together increasing capacity. Those promises were not kept and with more and more passengers wishing to commute to work by train the coastal service long ago reached the point where the journey time is considerably longer – Roy Coppins unearthed the timetables – than it was in 1927. It is fatuous to suggest, as one executive suggested to me recently, that “there were fewer trains and they did not stop as often” It is the failure of this publicly-owned company to invest in its promises that has at least in part caused the problem and while for part of Kent there is a `High Speed` service those off the favoured track have been treated, at great expense, as second-class citizens.
There is, now, a glimmer of a new dawn breaking on the horizon. The new Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, has taken the decision to do what should have been done long ago and probably in the first place (and yes, I acknowledge that it was our mistake) and to create a much greater bond and control between train and track operators. While that in itself will not solve our problems, Government is investing heavily in transport infrastructure and some of that money needs to come our way and to make up for lost time in bringing the permanent way into the 21st Century, , it is a significant step in the right direction and for that we should be appreciative.
If you are standing reading this on a cold, wet, platform waiting for a SouthEastern train that is late thank your lucky stars that at least you are not – yet – being subjected to the Neanderthal union action to which the passengers of Southern Rail are being subjected daily and which is causing, literally, lost jobs and broken marriages and let me leave you with an anecdote told to me at a local gathering at the weekend by a first-hand observer. A group of late, tired, homeward bound travellers were bemoaning their lot when an elegant and very elderly gentlemen recalled a journey that had begun at Cannon Street after work and ended in Broadstairs late the following morning. When his incredulous audience asked how this had happened he said gently that “It was in the middle of the war and it was the night that the Chatham Tunnel was bombed”! Sometimes a sense of proportion is no bad thing!
May my wife, Suzy, our growing family and I wish you a much happier and more peaceful Christmas than that which is being experienced by many men, women and children in this troubled world . Give us all the wisdom, the courage and the strength to address the real issues that should occupy our time.