London, Jan. 19: Frustration rose like steam from the crowd of commuters, huddled impotently together at Waterloo Station. They were there; their trains were not.
But to Daniel Rolph, the morning outlook — 45 minutes late and counting — was all in a day’s delay. It did not seem as upsetting, in the scheme of commuter misfortune, as the time when he observed two men in suits having a fistfight because one had inadvertently bumped the other on a packed, sweltering train in the summer.
Nor was it as serious as the time someone shoved him out the door of a train filled to capacity, leaving him lying on the station platform with a huge rip in his pants. “It seems that the English train system is not prepared to deal with anything,” said Rolph, 24.
The government is doing its best to prove him wrong by investing billions of pounds in its long underfinanced and overstretched aged railroad network. But even with £1.826 billion flowing into the system last year, an early installment in what could be as much as £70 billion over 10 years, the improvements, such as they are, do not seem to have yet trickled down to commuter level.
Only 81 per cent of Britain’s trains ran on time between July and September last year, down from 88 per cent five years earlier.
In the last year, complaints increased by 11 per cent (in a nation where people still shy from making a fuss, though, the volume of complaints is modest: 136 per 100,000 passenger journeys).
Things are bad even when conditions are good. From 1997, when the trains were privatised, through 2002, the number of people riding the trains increased by 20 per cent — but there was no commensurate increase in track capacity. As a result, the infrastructure is stretched to the limit.
“The main problem at the moment is that the railway network is basically full,” said Anthony Smith, national director of the Rail Passengers’ Council, a government-financed body that represents passengers.
“There are so many trains running on a railway that hasn’t really expanded to cope with them, so as soon as you get the slightest problem it causes major hiccups down the line. If it was the sunniest day imaginable, the trains still wouldn’t run on time,” he said.
This being Britain, many of the days are emphatically unsunny. Still, the system seems curiously unprepared for even regular seasonal occurrences, like the traditional autumn falling of the leaves. Every year, the leaves fall, and every year passengers face delays that are attributed by train operators to “leaves on the line”.
This month, the problem had to do with snow and ice, during a few days of unusual snowfall and temperatures that dipped below freezing in the busy southeast. Although matters hardly reached blizzard proportions, much of the rail system in the area essentially shut down.
In some parts, the heaters installed by Network Rail, the state-run agency responsible for the network infrastructure, failed to melt the ice on a number of key switches. Some trains were stymied by ice on the rails, or broke down in the cold.
In an unrelated misfortune, the power supply to Paddington Station was somehow cut off during the London snowfall, causing dozens of cancellations, preventing trains from entering or leaving the station and stranding thousands.
Steve Turner, a spokesman for Network Rail, said the company had done its best and was sorry. “The station wasn’t closed,” he explained about Paddington. “It’s just that we couldn’t get the trains in.”
As part of a new effort at accountability, Network Rail and the 25 private companies that operate the trains themselves have in the last few years begun conscientiously explaining delays to their customers, a huge change in a system where passengers used to be kept deliberately clueless, even as their trains stopped dead in the middle of nowhere. But while the effort is appreciated, the chronic recitation of one imaginative explanation after another easily veers into the ridiculous.
“One excuse was that the train was delayed because it took too long for passengers to get on and off,” Rolph said. “Once they announced ‘Due to staff shortages, your train has been cancelled’.”
Another Waterloo commuter, Robert Lazarus, said: “It’s always something different — signal failures, faulty trains, weather conditions. Once they said there was a horse on the line.”