Previously, we covered trains and tracks, the two major reasons for the problems, not just in the Thames Valley region, but across the whole FGW network. Now we move to some of the other problems that impact your commuting lives.
I'm going to start with an issue that is wholly within FGW's control and for which there is no excuse. Strangely, the more bad press that FGW received, the more this issue seems to become aparent. The issue is, of course, staff shortages.
There are may delays that are caused by staff sickness, by them not turning up for work or by them being diaplaced because of earlier disruption. These delays are one of the biggest pains of all because they are largely avoidable. Unfortunately, FGW is not top of most people's list as a company to work for these days because you know that you're going to have a bad day. This ceates a lot of the problems. A lot of staff sickness is, I'm fairly sure, the result of people who realy don't want to get up, rolling over and thinking 'sod it' because they cant be bothered to deal with the grief. I have days like that and I'm not on the front line dealing with people every minute that I'm at work.
Owing to the fact that FGW is not a popular company to work for, they are having trouble with both staff recruitment and staff retention. Even the most saintly of people gets tired of having people yell at them all day sooner or later and they move on to a more fulfilling career. This problem on the part of FGW is not one that should be passed to the customer, but sadly it largely is. If there is sickness and there are crew in the facility, they can take the train onwards, provided they are not on a mandated rest break. Often, however, there are no crew who could be got to the station in time to make the train worth running and so it is cancelled.
FGW is currently understaffed. In fact I believe that I am correct in stating that there is a nationwide shortage of rail staff. FGW offers good renumeration to its staff by and large. A fully qualified train driver (the bigest shortage) can earn £40,000. A trainee driver can walk off the street on £20,000. The problem is that most people are looking for a certain level of job satisfaction and they don't tend to get it in the current environment of FGW. Morale is low, but I think you guys alreay guessed that.
FGW obviously has ownership of this and it's my opinion that this problem is a symptom of other problems and, were things to get better on the railway, the staf would come back and there would be less of these types of problems. I know that FGW is currenbtly undergoing a recruitment drive to get people to come and work for them and you can't really ask them to do more in terms of providing numbers. However, I do thk that they could put more thought into the deployment of standby crew, based on trends of where the majority of delays of this type come in, (which, incidentally, seem to be the ex-Wessex line from Cardiff to Portsmouth). That also provides a neat segue into my next point, fuzzy thinking.
FGW has some very bright people working for it. It'sjust a shame that most of those poeple are not in positions of power. In my previos post on the nonsense surrounding claims ofr the disruption caused by the July floods, I went into some detail about the fuzy thinking mployed by FGW at times, but it is not just limited to customer service. Some of the decisions that have been made in the past, particularly regarding the management of disruption have been ludicrous. Some delays are unavoidable, this is true, but if there was a consistent, clear plan in place for the basic management of disruption, then delays would decrease. It seem sometimes as though FGW forget everyhing they learned the last time there as a big problem and just start fom scratch as to the best way to get out of whatever mess they are in. I'm sure you can all think of plenty of examples of this yourselves.
To be fair this is not all FGW's issue. We come back to our old friends NR for part of this. When there is a problem such as aisgnal failure and trains cannot get thourhg the blacked area, there is congestion and queues. When (if) the problem is repaired, it is not FGW that gets the final say on which train move first. We have an input certainly, but NR, as the owner of the track and controller of the signals, decides on movement priorities and which trains go first. I think FGW should take more of a stand on what they want to se move, but semtimes I do not feel that that would do much good, as neither organisation seems to be able to think clearly about what would be the best way to get the trains moving again and they seem to change their minds form train to train about what to do.
To give credit where it is due, I have at times, been so impressed with FGW's response to problems. I would cite Ufton Nervet as an example. The last major train crash a couple of years ago. I'm sure some of you remember it. I was in the office until mdnight on the day that happened and the following day from 7am to 8pm. I saw the whole handlingof the incident unfold and I spoke to many of the families of peope who had been on that train. Then I went and got very drunk, but it staggers me that if FGW can do it right then, why do they have such a problem doing it right at other times?
I'm afraid that I can't answer that, nor can I really provide any real insight on what it would take to fix this nagging difficulty. The idea that most immediately springs to mind is get rid of NR and give the train companies back their infrastructure. Then put some semblance of operational control back with the staff in the scene. Let the drivers clip points in the case of failures rather than have to call out an NR manager from God-knows-where. Let FGW decide on their own train priorities after disruption. That would make things better. Of course, it would also help if their were people in direct, operational control who learned from past insnaces, knew the pitfals of doing certain thigs and were able to get things running smothly, quickly. That, however, may be wishful thinking.
The final category of problem realy, are miscellaneous delays. Those are delays that are largely unavoidable, within no-one's control and the only thing that can really be done about them is to try and mitigate the effects (see above).
These are things like bad weather, fallen trees and other blockages, vehicles striking rail bridges, leaves on the line, lineside fires, vandalism, earthslips and, of course, fatalities. Before I get to these, I'm taking the opportunit to rant for a bit about two of the biggest railway jokes in existance, leaves on the line and the wrong type of snow. Everybody has a good chortle at these, but they are actually genuine problems.
Snow first. Whoever came out with that wrong snow line needs to be shot. I bet he feels bad now. However, I will now explain this and it may help fo those of you who haven't heard it before. There are, in fact, many types of snow. The one that causes the problem for the railways is the snow that is formed of large ice crystals. When this type of snow hits the rails, instead of just melting like snow formed of smaller crystals, it tends to form a layer of frost on the rails which makes them slippery and causes delays because all trains have to proceed under EROS (Emergency Restriction of Speed). So, although it was worded very badly, there is actually a wrong type of snow, so maybe we can all get over the joke now.
Leaves are another one that everybody likes to scoff at. Well, allow me to retort. When leaves land on the line, and this usually happens in wet weather, they tend to stick. When many tons of train goes over the leaves, it crushes them and the break down and forma slippery, resin-like coating on the rails. It's been described, more or less accurately, as the rail equivalent of black ice. Again, this means speed restricions. So, we can put that joke to bed now as well. Rant over.
Fatalities are the main problem as far as external delays go. Not so much because of their number, although it is depessingly high, but because of the amount of disruption they cause when they do happen. The police have to come to the scene and it has to be investigated to make sure that it was a suicide and then the coroner has to be called for the body. As unsavouray as it siunds, in mnay cses they have to make sure they have all the pieces. Then NR have to come out and inspect the track and make sure there is no structural damage. Then they have to clean the track. More often than not, we have to get a replacement driver to take the train onwards, as the old driver, understandably, usually does not feel up to it. This can take many, many hours, depending on how far everybody has to come.
Bridge strikes are another common one. They can take many hours to resolve, as wherever a road vehicle hits a rail bridge, the full bridge inspection team have to come out and go over every inch of the bridge to make sure that is is still structurally sound before they let the trains move again.
When there are lineside fires, depending on where the fire is, there may be an exclusion zone surrounding the track that trains cannot go through, earthslips and line obstructions have to be cleared.
These are all delays that no-one can really take ownership of as there are no real preventative measures than can be taken to stop them ocurring. However, what we can do, is make the impact of these delays less hard felt and that does require getting the house in order.
It's a depressing picture I know and I hope that I have been able to give some idea of the sher scale of the task that faces, not just FGW, but the UK rail network as a whole. I'm gonna leave this a couple of days to give people a chance to add their thoughts and then we'll have a big follow up and address the issues that arise out of this. Also, pardon my spelling in this post, I know it's crap.
See y'all soon.