Today I attended a public meeting at the St Nicholas Centre on our railway service, especially the Great Eastern mainline between Ipswich and London. On the platform with Ipswich MP Ben Gummer, who organised the meeting, was Dave Ward, regional director for East Anglia and a very senior representative from Network Rail who reports directly to the MD, and James Steward, a National Express East Anglia spokesman (and soon to be TUPE’d across into Abellio, the new Great Eastern operator). The BBC and
Morning Evening Star reporter Paul Geater were also in attendance.
The meeting gave those who attended (unfortunately only about 30 turned up) an opportunity to vent their anger for having to pay a small fortune for a diabolical railway service. The audience, although small, was nonetheless representative of commuters and travellers: young, middle-aged and retired. After about 40 minutes of speeches from Network Rail and NXEA the floor was opened up to questions. Everyone was scathing of the service, with particular hostility targeted at the NXEA representative, James Steward. Some of the topics raised were trains consistently delayed, cleanliness, lack of information, rude station staff. One chap even raised the point there was no clock on the front of Ipswich station, which I followed up moments later by explaining there were no visible clock from platform 1 and I challenged Mr Steward to get one erected within the next 4 to 6 weeks! The Network Rail representative at this point had his head in his hands not quite believing what he was hearing.
I also raised the issue of the rolling stock, which are hand-me-downs from the West Coast Mainline: why is it that the carriages inside were so dirty and the toilets disgusting? The NXEA representative nodded and agreed it should be better but fast turnarounds at Liverpool Street (usually because the train from Norwich was delayed in arriving) meant it was not always possible to ensure the carriages were completely clean. I challenged him to at least ensure there was soap in the dispensers, that the pedals to pump the water to the taps work and the towels pull through. From the reaction of the audience it was clear many understood first-hand the points I was making. Mr Gummer even relayed an experience where he had dispensed soap on to his hands in one NXEA on-board toilet only to realise there was no water…unfortunately, I have first-hand experience of that too.
The price of tickets were raised by nearly every member of the public who spoke but it was eloquently put by a young lady, probably in her 20s, who said she would soon be priced out of commuting to London and made the very serious point she would not be able to find like-for-like work in Ipswich. She also said it was “insulting” of NXEA to charge for WiFi when the travelling experience is so poor. Quite right. A season-ticket costs £5500 a year and NXEA charge for WiFi, a utility which should be treated like water: a case of immoral capitalism if there was ever one. Mr Steward from NXEA (soon to be from Abellio) responded as if it was the first time he had considered charging for WiFi might be wrong and said he would look into offering WiFi for free if customers would feel better about the train service as a result. Frankly, that is the least he could do.
Time and time again NXEA said they appreciated our views. I retorted by saying I don’t want you to appreciate it, I want you to fix it. Mr Gummer also emphasised these weren’t views, they were facts.
The Network Rail representative was impressive: he was very very well informed but then when you are that senior in an organisation I expect you to be. Some of the audience didn’t quite appreciate Network Rail was a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation, which Mr Ward had to emphasise. He was very much in favour of nationalisation though and said if Network Rail was privatised on the Monday he would leave on the Tuesday. One audience member put the case for privatisation of Network Rail, which Mr Ward vehemently opposed and cheekily said his view was not political, which of course it is. My view is privatisation would help to remove Network Rail inefficiency, which means the mainline is still closed on Sundays, 20 years after maintenance work began. But it would also probably mean less money, as shareholders and CEOs would want to ensure they took a handsome cut. Unfortunately, as Mr Gummer said, we need to work with what we have got today, which I tend to agree with.
All in all this was a very useful meeting. At least now us weary commuters have some names and faces in senior positions to hold to account. Abellio will soon take over the franchise (a major press release is due out from them on Monday) for 29 months at which time the Government will invite tenders to pitch for a 15 year franchise, hopefully with caveats to motivate the operator to invest in better rolling stock and improve the time it takes to travel between Ipswich to London. This is not going to happen without close cooperation between the rail operator and Network Rail, which both representatives said was crucial, but even today I think this is one reason for such a poor service: one example is the complete lack of information for why a train is delayed.
Finally, Ben Gummer is to be congratulated in pulling together this public meeting and getting the senior people from Network Rail and NXEA (Abellio) to attend. With the media presence and blog write-ups like this, hopefully the meeting will act as another catalyst to drag our railway service in East Anglia into the 21st century.
And Mr Steward, I expect a clock up on platform 1 by 5th March!