Feeling the heat

26 July 2019

Rail passengers and staff had a torrid time yesterday. Lots of cancellations, delays and some trains stranded when overhead power lines came down. All three north-south main lines – Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross – were severely disrupted into the evening. If you were caught up in it, let me know how you got on by filling in Transport Focus’s short survey.

A number of train companies were encouraging passengers ‘do not travel’ because things were likely to go wrong as the heat built up. Clearly, they were right to warn people – passengers say they want the railway to help them avoid the problem in the first place. Do people find it easier to accept that snow disrupts the railway than heat? Even though most of us know that metal expands in the heat, it’s somehow difficult to relate it to the resulting chaos. Could the industry have done more to signal ‘no, this is real’?

And should heat like yesterday, uncommon here but hardly unusual worldwide, really have been that disruptive? Safety is paramount and nobody wants risks taken with buckled rails leading to a derailment. But even with speed restrictions overhead line failures in various places caused massive problems – potentially really serious without opening windows and no power to the air conditioning. If days like yesterday are going to be more common, what needs to be done to make the infrastructure resilient? Are air conditioning systems, even with power, up to the job?

Passengers don’t want disruption – but if it happens good information is vital. Let people make an informed decision – do they go a different way, get a coach, sit it out, get a hotel? Despite all the effort to improve passenger information during disruption, many of the old weaknesses remain – especially not giving an overall sense of what’s going on (the wood) amongst the myriad individual delays and cancellations (the trees). And on trains, among many positive stories about great staff we still heard from passengers who were left wondering what is going on. The industry must reboot its efforts to improve information when things have gone wrong.

Yesterday showed a flaw in Delay Repay compensation schemes. Passengers heeding the advice ‘do not travel’ don’t get compensation – they weren’t late! Whereas those who battled through and were delayed get money back. That’s neither fair nor a sensible way to encourage people to stay at home when trouble is brewing. I’m writing to all train companies about plugging this gap in Passenger Charters.

And we shouldn’t forget the impact of the railway not functioning properly yesterday. How many had to pay high last-minute prices to go by air or coach instead? How many had to drive against their will? How many long-anticipated ‘one off’ events were simply missed? And what about the economic cost of cancelled meetings?

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