It would be no exaggeration to say that the railways are the backbone of our country. According to the Office for Rail and Road, there were 1,619,928 entries and exits at Kidderminster station in 2015/16. Our rail network carries more passengers today than it did in the heyday of the 1920s, on a network a fraction of the size. But whilst the growth of the railway is an outstanding success, it is no secret that it struggles to cope with demand; a minor problem can lead to long delays, cancellations and overcrowding. The way we run the railways needs to adapt in order to be able to cope with current and future growth. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling recently outlined his vision for England’s railways to deliver better, more reliable services to passengers and improved coordination across track renewal and train operations. One of the most interesting announcements is the plan to bring track and train operations closer together.
The organisation of railway control can be a little confusing at the best of times. Train operating companies (TOCs) such as London Midland run the train services, whilst Network Rail maintains the track. Delivering improvements on a working railway is tough at the best of times, but doing so across two different teams with complicated contracting arrangements is even more difficult. The lack of a joined up approach can make things difficult for the passenger - TOCs often end up taking the blame for the failings of Network Rail, and Network Rail as an infrastructure company has not always been incentivised to focus on the best possible customer service. In my experience, it is difficult to understand the division between the TOC and Network Rail - we just want someone to be in charge, and for trains to work.
The Department for Transport is going to start bringing back together the operation of track and train on our railways by appointing one local management team, with representatives from the TOC and Network Rail, to run the railways and take responsibility for problems. It was often said about British Rail that it seemed to operate as if it thought it was running a giant train set, not a customer service business. Now, with a network of local managers supported from the centre, we can have a truly accountable, incentivised, sustainable railway operation that puts the passenger first.