The headlines yesterday that Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR) must spend £15m on passenger improvements to hold onto its franchise will be welcome if overdue news for the droves of commuters whose lives were made hell during the timetable chaos earlier this year.
The Department for Transport labelled GTR’s performance “unacceptable”, and has not only decreed that the operator will make no profit this financial year, but has capped its future profits until 2021.
But the demands for someone’s head to roll – whether it be that of the rail operators, Network Rail, or transport secretary Chris Grayling – continue. It’s not hard to see why.
With thousands of services cancelled or disrupted, poor performance is not a minor inconvenience – it’s an ongoing misery that puts people’s jobs, family life, and even mental health under strain.
A major issue is that it is not always clear who is at fault – the British system is a mess of public and private ownership, locked in an endless blame game. The timetable fiasco was partly driven by the state-backed Network Rail failing to deliver improvements on time, which left private operators scrambling to rearrange services, with dire results.
And when Jeremy Corbyn tweeted “We need public ownership of our railways” in response to disrupted Virgin Trains journeys, the problem was – in that instance – down to failures with signals, which are nationalised.
That is not to let rail operators off the hook, and news last week that rail fares are due to rise in January by an average of 3.1 per cent adds “insult to injury”, as the chair of parliament’s transport select committee put it.
So what can MPs do now? The “fundamental reform” that the committee has called for may take years, but there’s one recommendation that is easy to implement and would go some way towards reassuring passengers that they are not powerless: automatic compensation for delays.
Refunds for disrupted services are currently available, but the process is so time-consuming and convoluted that, according to Which? research, only 33 per cent of passengers actually claim them. Were fares refunded automatically (and the technology clearly already exists), passengers might feel less trampled over, while rail operators would suddenly have a sharper incentive to improve performance.
It’s not a silver bullet, and there are still major questions to be answered by everyone in the rail sector, not least Grayling, as to why a nation building its own satellite programme cannot make trains run on time.
But if the aim is to put consumers first, it would be a good start.