A ‘fragile’ railway?

20 November 2023

It’s sometimes said that rail passengers want a ‘boringly reliable’ service. In other words, one where it’s unusual for a train to be late or, worse, the railway to be closed.

Sadly, for a whole host of reasons, the railway isn’t boringly reliable at the moment. There’s the industrial relations. After last week’s welcome news of a possible breakthrough in the RMT dispute with train companies, ASLEF strikes have been announced for early December affecting many passengers in England. And then there’s the weather! From Agnes, Babet, Ciarán to Debi, the various named storms already this autumn have shown that the railway is far from resilient. Passengers in various parts of the country have been affected by flooded tracks.

But even on days when neither strikes nor the weather are a problem, the railway seems fragile. No end of signalling problems, short-formed trains and overhead electric wire issues. And from 9 December until the end of the year Avanti West Coast is having to significantly scale back its timetable on Saturdays because of staff shortages.

So, what is Transport Focus doing for passengers?

We’re asking Network Rail about the fragility point. Why are signalling systems so susceptible to developing faults? What can be done about it?

Some Great Western Railway passengers are currently experiencing crowding because trains are running with fewer carriages than they should. We’ve written to Great Western Railway about this.

We’re asking for better data to be in the public domain to help understand if the performance trend is going in the right direction or not.

We’ll be making sure that the rail industry clearly communicates what will and won’t be running during the Aslef strikes in December.

We’re also putting together plans for a major piece of work to help the rail industry improve the way it manages service disruption. Clearly, it would be better if the track, signals and trains didn’t fail in the first place. But increased focus on passenger experience and minimising inconvenience when something does go wrong will help. The railway needs to show that it cares and that it is on passengers’ side when something goes awry.

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