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Railwatch 069 - October 1996

Network benefits

I write this article the weekend of the Watford train crash and resist the temptation to reiterate the difficulties of managing safety on a divided and muddled railway.

I will return to the subject some other time because the issue is clouded with half truths and much is hidden from public view. It is essential the arguments are debated again and again.

Network benefits are proving another problem for the fragmented railway. Despite the rhetoric during the parliamentary debates and reassurances that they would not disappear, it is now being realised, as the fragmentation process continues, that much has been lost.

The passengers were not likely to be grateful, and with the election in mind, the pressure was on to address the subject - even in retrospect. The train operating companies had to abandon some of their main thrusts.

There is no doubt that the Association of Train Operating Companies and Railtrack should be made more and more aware of the Regulator's powers as the problems develop.

The 1995 timetable was so full of errors that there was a reprint amid a public outcry. The new timetable has much less information than the original and it will not be long before the cost-cutting reduces the present volume even further.

Setting aside the complicated and varying cost of travel between the same two points with different companies, the disinclination of the train operating companies to sell each other's product is natural. As has been said several times, you would not expect Tesco to advertise Waitrose baked beans!

Lost property too is now such a muddle with three or four offices at one terminal. The problems of train enquiry bureaux are being separately addressed but many anomalies still exist. Sir George Young may pride himself on his bicycling credentials, but his department gives little encouragement to groups lobbying for better facilities for carrying bicycles on trains.

Indeed an RDS member sent me a Department of Transport document which illustrates clearly this subject is considered a low-priority item. Work had not even started in May on producing a voluntary code of practice for operators.

Train travel for disabled people is the most emotive of issues. Provision of facilities on stations and trains can be expensive but in the past, the British Railways Board made considerable progress.

There was a booklet listing all facilities and a system existed nationwide for disabled travel with the minimum of fuss. From enquiries I have made, it is clear that no national guide to disabled travel now exists and one train operating company does not know what facilities exist at another's or indeed at places off their area.

From the now fragmented railway, there is no co-ordinated response to national events and companies are not liaising to provide services. I am concerned that should the train operating companies suffer financial difficulties, the axe will fall on areas covered by the network benefits.

The facilities and benefits arising from the BR network had, albeit slowly, steadily improved over the years. The train operating companies must not be allowed to dismantle them.

Those of us who value the benefits of a nationwide network must remain alert and make sure the Regulator is made aware of our concerns.

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