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Friday 21 February 2020

The Railway Fails Its Customers

What follows is related more in sorrow than in anger, but you are reminded that this is not an exceptional experience on today’s fragmented railway.

Yesterday evening I had arranged to meet up with some pals from Chester in Liverpool. The occasion was the city’s 40th CAMRA Beer Festival, held in the Lutyens Crypt by the Metropolitan Cathedral. As there would be plenty of beer consumed, it made sense for us all to travel by train and let someone else drive.
Liverpool's Lime Street station: Rather elusive yesterday evening

Liverpool is just 35 miles from Crewe by rail. There are fast and frequent electric train services, with return possible right up to 2335 hours. So what could possibly go wrong?

Wires down at Runcorn. That’s what.

Quite apart from this being a worrying occurrence - the electrification from Crewe to Liverpool was energised in 1962, and the older installations of overhead line are usually less prone to this kind of thing - the train service more or less collapsed on the spot.

Avanti West Coast, as successors to Virgin Trains, diverted their Liverpool trains to Warrington, terminating most of them there (one got through later in the evening, arriving into Lime Street at around 2130 hours).

London Northwestern Railway simply abandoned the service north of Crewe. So anyone wanting to travel from Winsford, Hartford or Acton Bridge - you were stuffed.

This is despite there being an electrified alternative route via Warrington and Earlestown.

The excuse from LNW would probably be that their franchise bid did not include having their drivers learn the road from Weaver Junction via Warrington and Earlestown to Liverpool. And the railway is now compartmentalised and fragmented, so the idea of there being any drivers on hand who did sign the road, or who might have been able to act as pilotman, was for the birds.

So what happened then?

Simples. Effectively, travelling via Chester was made the primary alternative route, and was displayed as such on the departure boards at Crewe.

The result? The 1724 Transport for Wales Crewe to Chester shuttle - a two-coach unit which would normally be ample for the custom on offer - became so obscenely overcrowded that its departure was delayed for around 10 minutes as the driver couldn’t get the unit to move. Door interlock problem. Like they couldn’t be closed properly.

But at least this train arrived at Chester in time for the 1801 Merseyrail for Liverpool, which was in turn horribly overloaded. Travel experience less than pleasant, but at least it was “only” 1 hour 20 minutes. The fun and games really kicked off on the way home.
A lot of beer in a cold-ish crypt (thanks due to one of the Chester crowd)

To ensure getting back to Crewe, departure from Lime Street had to be moved forward to 2143 hours, or almost two hours before the last LNW direct service, which of course was not running. The Merseyrail service arrived at Chester in time for the 2230 Transport for Wales to Crewe. The latter should have been waiting on Platform 4. But it was not waiting, because, you guessed it, it had been cancelled. No reason was provided. It just was.

There was another train, though, at just after 2300 hours. So I repaired to the Town Crier for a swift pint in the warm. Then back to Chester station. Where the train was advertised as departing from Platform 1. But it wasn’t; this was an empty unit going to the depot.

Then it would go from Platform 3. But it was “delayed”. How “delayed” it was was not apparent. Then, you guessed it, on a windy and bitterly cold night, it was going to be half an hour late, there having been a signal failure at Rhyl. It actually left for Crewe around 40 minutes late. Information provision at Chester was abysmal.

Journey time around 2 hours 20 minutes. Or, to put it in the direct language which ordinary punters would be using by this point, totally unacceptable and inexcusable with it.

Because, let us not drive this one around the houses for too long, while individual train operators shrug their shoulders and dodge blame, and someone somewhere prepares to trot out the routine apology relaying their regret that the service fell short of what might have been expected, this was the kind of travel experience that puts people off. Totally.

And those people that have been put off are unlikely to want to return to the railway - or, whisper it quietly, recommend that travel mode to others. That’s not good enough.
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Anonymous said...

Maybe it's only coincidence......but this sort of thing happens in various ways where the city of Liverpool is concerned. Particularly in media "news".

It couldn't be because tories, New Labour and LibDems got handed their arses before being run out of the city could it?

Nah. It's a coincidence.......

SteveB said...

I'm a bit late here, if you thought last Tursday was bad you should have tried my journey to Scotland (which, much later than planned, ended at a hotel that had stopped selling cask ale - just to add insult to injury!!).

Scouse self pity might make some feel better and help justify their own political thoughts but this situation can happen all over Britain, and last Thursday probably did!

Problem 1. Network Rail, the bastard child of Railtrack and a fudged government response to its total collapse. They shored up the essential service provision with public money, then quietly let the same "club" of old friends get on with mismanaging the network in the same way which had caused the problem.

Problem 2. "New Business Management". Bits of paper saying you have a degree/diploma in lieu of relevant real knowledge and common sense. This affects most big organisations in Britain and isn't political. In fact some of the organisation cock-ups of all the big parties may be caused by it.

Problem 3. And this causes everything else to pale into insignificance. "Delay Repay". Started by BR in the mid 90s as Passengers Charter but now pays out for almost any delay and sometimes before some passengers even realise they were delayed! Except it doesn't create pressure on the train companies to improve. It just alters how they budget. They know the terms of their deal, so they estimate how much they may need to pay out over the year and then cover it in the budgets, either by cutting services like staff to help you or by increasing fares overall. You don't pay a fare anymore - you place a bet! If the train gets there on time you lose your stake money, if you are delayed you get something back, if it's very late you "win". And no-one actually needs to bother keeping the trains running when things get a bit rough, so all the tedious knowledge and experience needed to create contingency plans doesn't have to be paid for.

In Tim's case the wiring at Runcorn may be old but the design is much stronger than the cheap Thatcher era stuff on the east coast (where Transpennines new trains have to run on diesel from Morpeth to Edinburgh because the system can't cope with having more than one electric train per hour!!). Quite correct that Warrington and Earlestown offers an alternative electric route, giving enough months notice Avanti can work out a plan to use it at quiet times. But, like most lines in Britain the budget for the signalling system was based on the level of use when it was installed, not the fact that it would be useful as a contigency. And since then Transpennine have rerouted 2 trains an hour each direction onto the line meaning at that time of day there are 6 per hour between Earlestown and Liverpool, some stopping and some trying to run fast. The signalling system is at capacity.

Meanwhile in Wales, everything is made worse because, well how can I put this, it's in Wales. Here nationalist politics means is better to be mediocre but able to do it in both languages than to be good but only in English. So why was the Holyhead-Crewe train that failed to show up at Chester cancelled?? No idea, it was officially booked to "Unknown Cause", they might work out an excuse later in the wrangling over who pays compo to whom. BUT I do know the inward train to Holyhead had been officially altered in advance and sad experience suggests that this means someone forgot to follow the whole chain of alterations through to the end of the night and loose ends became dead ends. Never mind, have you seen the "Delay Repay" section of their website........