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The Office of Rail Regulation spoke up for passengers - it's time ministers did the same

The Office of Rail Regulation spoke up for passengers - it's time ministers did the same
4 min read

This week has seen the publication of the Office of Rail Regulation's (ORR) report into the failings which led to the Christmas rail chaos. They have rightly criticised Network Rail and called for the industry to put passengers at the heart of its planning. But there are lessons that Ministers can learn too. 

The ORR's report states that over 100,000 passengers were affected by the rail chaos over the Christmas period. Passengers were left stranded across the country, an image that was particularly encapsulated by the pictures of the thousands standing in the freezing cold at Finsbury Park in North London. 

Thanks to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request that Labour revealed earlier this week, we now know that Ministers were warned and failed to act. The FOI response reveals that Ministers were made aware of the exact problems facing the network over this crucial period.

Information obtained by Labour from the Department for Transport (DfT) shows that, on 17 November 2015, the ‘Rail Taskforce’, of which the Department is a member, discussed; 

"Christmas and New Year Planned Engineering Works - Members noted the people resources, specifically Signal Testers, Overhead Linesmen and Supervisors, were the biggest risk to delivery as they are currently at supply chain capacity limits."

The released information goes on to show that following this meeting, these seasonal resilience issues were to be raised again in December at the Department’s ‘Performance Delivery Group’ - a body chaired by Ministers. This is damning evidence that shows the level of ministerial complicity in the Christmas rail chaos.

It was obvious from mid-November that there were going to be significant difficulties for Network Rail to deliver their planned engineering work. Notwithstanding whether or not Ministers should have given the green light to what became known as the 'Boxing Day shutdown' that caused such disruption in itself for the travelling public, Ministers seemingly did nothing to question Network Rail about their plans for over Christmas. In particular whether or not they had the sufficient capacity, resilience and contingency plans to handle the sheer sale of work they were attempting.  

In fairness, Labour did warn Ministers following the ORR’s interim performance report on Network Rail performance on 20 November. As we said at the time; "Ministers need to get a grip of the situation, and ensure this poor performance doesn't continue so that passengers don't have to face unnecessary delays over the busy Christmas period." But once again, nothing was done.

The ORR was right, this week, to speak up for passengers. But so too should Ministers. The Rail Minister, 'calamity' Claire Perry, in many ways has come to encapsulate just how out of touch and incompetent Ministers can be. You will remember that she achieved notoriety when she lectured hard-pressed commuters, who have seen inflation-busting fares since 2010, that they were paying "fair fares for comfortable commuting". On the Sunday after the Christmas rail chaos, with all the timing of tragicomedy, she proudly declared in one banner newspaper headline that she "so chuffed" with the railways. A view not shared by the tens of thousands of passengers who had suffered over Christmas. 

Ministers may like to talk about "comfortable commuting", but it is increasingly evident that big changes are needed to the running of our railway, not least in ensuring that passengers must are given a proper voice so that they are at the very centre of the way in which the industry is run.

Labour’s changes will include a new body responsible for co-ordination and strategic direction of the railways which will have passenger representation at its core. At the moment, Network Rail and the train firms co-exist in a body somewhat ironically named the 'Rail Delivery Group'. This is a cosy industry stitch-up that I'm afraid is not fit for purpose.

Labour will also review franchising so that we ensure that the travelling public and taxpayers are getting maximum value for their continued funding of the industry. And we will end the presumption against the public sector in passenger rail service delivery so that we have a public operator able to take on and challenge the private train operating companies. 

When the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, was summoned to the House when the Speaker granted Labour's urgent question in the Commons, at one point he said it was not the job of Ministers to "micro-manage" the running of the railways. He may be right, though as former Transport Minister John Spellar MP heckled at the time; "any sort of management will do!”.

But it is certainly the job of Ministers to speak up for passengers - this week's investigations into the Christmas rail chaos have exposed the fact that Ministers failed to do just that. 

In marked contrast to the approach taken by the current Government, Labour's reforms to the railways are aimed at ensuring that this industry absolutely lives up to the regulator’s demand that passengers are at the heart of its planning and service delivery.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Shadow Secretary of State for Transport. 

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