I wrote a blog recently about why I support firefighters and I want to follow that up with a declaration of support for the RMT. As Mick Lynch rightly said, railways have been failing to provide a minimum service level for a decade, and it’s insanity to suggest this would improve by sacking workers who refuse to scab! Most of this blog will be a series of anecdotes about my personal experience of commuting to York for work 15 years ago, I’ve no reason to believe it’s any better now.
To provide a bit of context, I live in Sherburn in Elmet – the largest village in the district of Selby. Trains from Selby to Leeds pass close enough to my home that I can hear them. A public footpath across a field (which is no longer accessible to me now that I require a walking aid) took me to South Milford station which was fine when I worked in Leeds, but a different story when it came to working in York, I think it had summat to do with living in North Yorkshire with a Leeds postcode.
Some trains from Selby to York pass through Sherburn station, which is the other side of the village from me and took me 20 minutes to walk there when I was fit. If the train happened to be on time, which wasn’t very often, I could miss it by one minute and have to wait an hour for the next one with nowt to do when I’m so far from home. I did try walking to Church Fenton, the next station down the line which also has connections with trains between Leeds and York, but it wasn’t such a good idea as I only just made it! I did walk the opposite direction, let me tell you about that.
A couple of weeks earlier I had caught the 4.00pm train from York but there was some problem on the line and we had to go back to York and use the other track, which meant waiting for the line to be clear and a platform space. We left York on time for a journey that should have taken 20 minutes and arrived 50 minutes late! I was suffering from hay fever and was stuck in a carriage with air conditioning that didn’t work for all that time. So I knew what to expect when the train stopped at Church Fenton and we were told we’ld have to go back to York. I thought ‘I can walk it in the time it takes them to figure it out’, and I did! I wasn’t alone, a lad with a learning disability chose to follow me when he saw me leaving the train. I explained what I was doing and he trusted me enough to follow my lead.
There were only two trains I could catch home from York – 4.10pm and 6.10pm – and I couldn’t knock off work before 4.00pm. 10 minutes to get to the station and if it departed on time I’ld be likely to watch it leave and have to find summat to do for two hours. That might mean going back to work, pub if I could afford it, or strolling around York if it’s a sunny day – most of you reading this will know that’s one of my pleasures 😊
It wasn’t a good service even when trains ran on time, which wasn’t very often! If there was a delay, someone would have to phone for information and pass it on to everyone else on the platform too. One time when I made the call I was informed that not only had that train been cancelled but the next one had too. I phoned in to work to say that it was unlikely I’ld be in that day but some of us organised a taxi for ourselves.
On one occasion a train going to Hull had to wait for a crew to be brought from Hull in a taxi! They can’t even get the train and the crew in the same place 😠 I emigrated to Australia in 1972 with a job on Melbourne trams. In my second week I was paid 3x for being there on a public holiday as a spare conductor. Imagine that happening now 🙄
The train I regularly caught home from York had four carriages and those of us travelling to Sherburn were accustomed to sitting in the front two carriages of a train because Sherburn had a short platform. This works well until they decided to split the train and didn’t tell us until we’ld already left the station that we needed to be in the rear two compartments 😠 We had to get off at the next stop on the line to Leeds and call for a taxi.
On one occasion it took so long for alternative transport to be arranged that the following service from York to Hull had arrived and was diverted through Sherburn for those still waiting to get home. I fortunately wasn’t one of them, a fellow commuter had phoned his wife to come and pick him up and I was offered a lift. Someone who did wait for the train told me people were complaining about being a few minutes late getting home because of the diversion when others had already been delayed for 2hrs and risked not getting home at all!
I asked a taxi driver who was replacing my usual service about how they justified paying him and he said it was because it was cheaper than paying a fine for failure to run trains on time. Of course these things are just regarded as a cost of doing business which they can pass on to passengers with increased fares, which means we pay more for a bad service than we would for a good one!
It takes me longer now to get to South Milford station now than it used to take to get to Sherburn, using a walking frame I have to go slowly round by the road instead of taking a shortcut across a field. I can’t get on or off a train without assistance and I can’t expect any as things stand, which is why I support RMT strikes. Mick Lynch is quite right, railway operators haven’t been able to maintain minimum service levels for decades and they won’t improve matters by sacking striking workers!
Buses have two advantages for me now I’m retired, they’re free and easier to get on and off. Disadvantages are that there’s only one bus an hour and last bus back from Selby or Pontefract is 6.00pm, 6.30pm from Leeds. There was no direct bus to York when I worked there although a service was started after I retired, and there’s no service at all on Sundays and bank holidays. If I wanted to catch a combination of bus and train, the train would have departed a few a minutes before the bus arrived and vice versa – even if the same company runs both services they’re unable to co-ordinate them!
Politicians of all stripes seem obsessed with HS2 but I don’t see that as the answer, even setting aside the environmental damage caused by it’s construction. It’s taking much longer than anticipated to complete, the cost is skyrocketing, and it’s seems it won’t go to all the places that were planned. Improvements to existing services would have benefited more people, sooner, at a fraction of the cost. Anyone who doesn’t live close to one of the termini has to either drive or use a local service to get there, which nullifies any time-saving benefits – to make sure they don’t miss there connection, passengers would have to get to the station well before it’s due. And it won’t even replace domestic flights, which the Government has just made cheaper!
It’s never made any sense for railways to be divided among so many companies, especially when the operators don’t own the tracks, the stations, or the rolling stock. It just means a fragmented system with nobody bearing ultimate responsibility when things go wrong. The crash near Selby in 2001 wasn’t caused by the train operator but by a motorist falling asleep at the wheel, but reducing track inspections and maintenance will make accidents more likely – perhaps not as bad as recent disasters in Ohio and Greece but risking passenger safety to cut costs must be deplored!
I very nearly had a nasty accident myself once, my foot slipped on the icy platform at Selby as I was stepping onto a train going to Leeds and was very lucky to recover – I don’t care to contemplate what would have happened if my foot had gone down between the platform and the train. In the few minutes before the train departed someone else slipped and staff decided to grit the platform to avoid being sued!
I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough to show why I support the RMT campaign. Buses, trains and ferries all need to be taken into public ownership, and we need an integrated public transport system that works for people not for profit. Passengers, as well as unions, should have an input into how services are run. There was a survey conducted on a train I was travelling on and I said it would make more sense if they asked people who don’t travel by train but would if the service was better!