Anyone who’s ever commuted for work will tell you the same story about the average day. You get up, often in the dark. You get a hideously early train, usually having to stand squashed into a space so small as to induce claustrophobia. You spend the day at work, then go through the same journey in reverse on the way home, getting through your front door in the dark. The daylight you see comes through the office windows and at weekends.
And that’s if the trains are running smoothly.
The Department for Transport published figures yesterday showing that one in three commuters are forced to stand on peak morning trains to London. For the majority of commuters, the news was not a revelation but a validation (accompanied by a weary sigh) of what so many already know. In fact, many will be surprised only one in three passengers have to stand.
While the rail network operates on a franchise basis, this is still a problem for government. In fact it’s been a problem for successive governments, particularly because commuters fail to see improvements. In fact, they see the system failure getting worse.
Just last month Southern Rail announced it was cutting back services rather than laying on more trains, ostensibly requiring the same number of people to cram into an even smaller amount of space and increasing the problems of overcrowding. And in recent days, former rugby international Alistair Hignell, who requires a wheelchair, recounted how he was trapped on a train because of an absence of staff to help him disembark.
Suffice to say there is no quick fix. But at a time when the Government is under a microscope for its preparations for Brexit and facing questions over the UK’s energy supply with delays to the Hinkley Point contract, it has an opportunity to seize an initiative by being seen to address what is a chronic transport problem.
Robust challenges to the companies with the rail franchises to improve performance, reliability and capacity could help assuage the frustration of commuters. And, from a cynical political perspective, it would allow the Government to reinforce its authority as Labour faces a divisive leadership contest. Solutions will take a long time to see results. But an overt push to improve the situation could be a further timely boost to the Government’s standing.
When Chris Grayling was appointed Transport Secretary, he inherited two major infrastructure issues in HS2 and airport capacity. The new DfT figures might mean train overcrowding is pushed up the inbox.