30 January 2023

Rising costs, atrocious service – is this really the best commuters can expect?


‘The only reliable way to catch a train is to miss the one before…’

I have worked in finance for nearly 40 years. I have withstood psychotic managers, overcome multiple business hurdles, survived a major health scare and triumphed as a small firm guy against big vested interests. But despite all those trials and tribulations, I’m pretty sure it will be Network Rail and South Western Railway who conspire to put me in a box.

The quality of train service is critical to people in my part of Hampshire who rely on the Southampton – London Waterloo to get to work. Indeed, many have chosen to live in this area for lifestyle and family reasons. They tend to be in well-paid jobs and are natural Tory voters.

The sad truth, however, is that many now find their mental health under pressure as the increasingly chaotic unreliability of the service puts their livelihoods in jeopardy. For many who live in the Home Counties, a key attraction is a regular, reliable train into London – without that, however, the whole equation changes dramatically. 

It’s the sheer unpredictability of our daily commute that is killing us. Each and every trip to London is now a struggle, a lottery. We face uncertainty on which trains will be running, which will be cancelled at the last moment due to staff shortages, which will break down, what will break on the line that day, and the sheer randomness of events like the wrong kind of snow, the wrong kind of leaves or it being too hot or too cold for the tracks.

And you see the same tales of woe all over the country, be it Avanti West Coast, LNER or one of the various companies under the Govia Thameslink umbrella.

For most of the years leading up to the pandemic, this wasn’t an issue in our patch. I would catch the reliable 6.38 train from Southampton Parkway and be at my desk in London by 8am – refreshed with a cup of tea from the trolley, a comfortable seat and a table to work on. I could spend the trip writing my morning market commentary, Blain’s Morning Porridge (which is, incidentally, read by plenty of MPs of all stripes, as well as the wealth managers it was originally aimed at).

But even before the pandemic it was becoming increasingly clear that the line was in crisis, with miscommunication between Network Rail and the operating companies meaning delays multiplied. The rolling stock was tired and jaded. It got worse as comfortable trains with seat-back tables to work on were replaced by local services where it’s impossible to work. Since the pandemic, the service has gone from bad to utterly atrocious.

But, I hear you cry, do trains actually matter as much in the era of the Zoom meeting and widespread working from home?

Well, it’s true that the pandemic taught us we can keep businesses open by using Zoom, but to create growth and improve productivity – at a time when the UK seems to be plummeting down the global economic league tables – it’s critical we are able to return to our offices. Zoom is certainly a useful substitute, but it will never beat face-to-face meetings. Unfortunately, video calls are fast becoming the only option for people in our area because of the sickening unreliability of the trains.

Perversely, it’s not the strikes that have really hurt commuters. These we can understand and plan for, and most of us would willingly give workers a 100% pay rise if it meant the service was made reliable again.

To compound the increasingly intolerable level of service, the cost of our tickets has risen for the past 12 years at a rate way above inflation. Declining service, rising cost – is that really what the Tory Party now stands for? Over the time the Conservatives have been in power commuters like me have seen nothing but decline – is it any wonder many have abandoned the party?

Ironically, the one person I don’t blame for these issues is my local Conservative MP, Paul Holmes. He is hard-working, diligent and has done plenty of great work for his constituents, including in my own village. But the fact remains, unless something is done about the train service I will be heading to an early grave brought on by the repeated stress. I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one.

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Bill Blain is market strategist and head of alternative assets at Shard Capital.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.