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Taxpayers fund Network Rail Incompetence

from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11317354/Ministers-have-been-asleep-at-the-signal-box-during-Christmas-rail-chaos.html

Ministers have been asleep at the signal box during Christmas rail chaos

When passengers waited for hours on freezing platforms, where were ministers, asks Michael Dugher



Mark Carne (inset) and passengers queuing at London's Finsbury Park Station
Mark Carne (inset) and passengers queuing at London's Finsbury Park Station  Photo: Rex Features/Reuters

Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, had an interesting list of gifts for Britain's rail passengers over Christmas: a near shutdown of the network on Boxing day, last-minute cancellations, station closures, extensive delays, excruciating journeys, unbearable overcrowding and too little timely information. More Scrooge than Santa.

Everybody is used to a more limited service being operated on Boxing Day, recognising significantly reduced passenger numbers and the need to carry out essential rail maintenance and improvement. But this year, even though the Conservative Party said before the last election that it would do something about the lack of services on Boxing Day, ministers allowed 17 operators to run no services at all while reduced services were the norm elsewhere.

The next day, and into the weekend, saw more than 200 sites overrun, with the worst cases including Paddington and Kings Cross.

So what happened? Passengers deserve answers from Ministers. We don't know if ministers were skiing or fox-hunting, but a transport minister has been about as rare as an on-time train this Christmas.

After days of bad headlines, Patrick McLoughlin issued a statement attempting to shift blame to Network Rail. And the Rail Minister, 'Calamity Claire' Perry, wrote a newspaper column proclaiming, on what was one of the worst days this year for rail passengers, "why I’m so chuffed" with the railways.

There were signs weeks ago that Network Rail’s performance was not where it needed to be - and Labour warned that ministers needed to get a grip. The ORR recently wrote to Network Rail commenting on its recent performance and plans for improvement, stating: "It is essential that these issues are resolved quickly, and that rail users see the improvements to the standard of service they expect and have paid for." The question that still hangs in the air is: what did the Government do about it?

We need a proper investigation into how this disruption was allowed to happen, including what the impact was of the scale of the Boxing Day shutdown and the role of ministers in allowing this to take place.

Last weekend's chaos shows once again the deep flaws that lie at the heart of our railways. Ministers may be 'chuffed', but we’ve had days of unacceptable disruption, with passengers suffering cancellations and miserable delays. And as the fines doled out to Network Rail for this incompetence will be paid from their taxpayer funds, it will of course ultimately be the taxpayer that foots the bill. This is no way to run the railways.

So, while ministers attempt to pass the buck, where is the 'culture of consequences' for Network Rail? The Telegraph led the way in exposing that the alternative culture of 'bonuses for failure' has not been eradicated. I have written to Network Rail’s Chief Executive, Mark Carne, to point out that bonuses are there to reward performance and that the public would find bumper bonuses for top executives this year indefensible given such a dismal performance.

Responsibility and restraint are the very least that the travelling public, and indeed the taxpayer, expect and deserve.

Since Network Rail’s significant debt has come back on to the public balance sheet, we have seen little more than a ‘business as usual’ attitude from Ministers. This must change. Ed Miliband is determined to see big changes. That’s why Labour will ensure we create a new way of operating for the railways and conduct a review of franchising.

This will bring the whole industry together in order to deliver better coordination. Crucially, this body will include a strong voice for passengers - something that is absent at present in the Government's so-called 'Rail Delivery Group'.

The bad headlines this Christmas for Britain's railways are, sadly, just the latest for an industry in desperate need of change. Giving passengers more of a voice would make a start in turning things around. But ministers too must shoulder some of the blame. They may be 'chuffed' at what has happened to our railways, but they cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for the chaos of recent days.

Michael Dugher MP is the Shadow Transport Secretary and the Member of Parliament for Barnsley East

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