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The Modern GWR

The Strain of the Train

I watched the BBC2 programme about the West Coast mainline in ‘The Railway’ series and found it all very stressful. I am lost in admiration for the staff of this hectic, nay, manic bit of line as they try to deal with people who know nothing about the problems involved in running a train service and whose behaviour is, in some cases, utterly deplorable. If this excellent series does just a little to teach these people what efforts are involved in getting them from A to B, it will have been worth making.

Nothing demonstrated for me the insanity of the ‘market’ approach towards providing a rail service more vividly than the discussion with the signalman at Birmingham New Street about the financial penalties that are inflicted and the criteria that allocate blame. To learn that suicides and acts of god are, financially, the fault of Network rail is flabbergasting. To discover further that the size of pheasants is defined as the threshold for penalty charges suggests strongly that the mental stability in our policy makers is not all it should be.

What is worse is that the whole system of penalties creates much more stress on rail workers than needs to be the case. The footage of the PW gangs fighting against the clock to get engineering works completed so as not to incur charges shows how additional stress is caused to the employees in a way that is surely incompatible with either quality of work or of modern civilised employment practices. And it was all for the most marginal of upgrades that snip milliseconds off the passenger’s journey.

I think that I support the electrification of the GWR mainline on the basis that it may be an investment that will be less environmentally damaging in the long term as electricity is so much cleaner than diesel but I fail to see why and how anyone really benefits as a human being by arriving 15 – 20 minutes earlier than they otherwise would. The old 1958 steam era ‘Bristolian’ timings have stood for many years and is anyone really gagging to be in Paddington or Bristol that much quicker? Trains are great for punctuating your day, for chilling out, doing your email at your leisure so why do we not value that in them and try to ensure that they run smoothly and efficiently, with spacious, comfortable carriages, with proud staff who can take things in their stride rather than cranking performance up to the degree where stress is overwhelming?

Sounder values were articulated in the programme by the Blea Moor signalmen who loved his rural isolation, his coal burning stove, snug in his mechanical box on the Settle and Carlisle. It’s not surprising that people love travelling on heritage railways where it is the journey that they experience not the clammering for the destination. They get a chance to unwind, relax and enjoy being served by people operating a railway out of joy and love, rather than with stress levels that are in the stratosphere.

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