Even if you were fortunate enough to be tucked up in front of a roaring fire over Christmas, you won’t have failed to notice the misery inflicted on those who had to travel.
Newspapers and TV bulletins were full of graphic images of stranded rail passengers herded like cattle from London’s King’s Cross mainline terminal to Finsbury Park station — which was immediately shut down, too, as a result of legitimate safety fears caused by overcrowding.
While King’s Cross was deserted because of ‘essential maintenance works’, Finsbury Park was in grave danger of becoming Hillsborough Mark II.
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Finsbury Park station was immediately shut down as a result of safety fears caused by overcrowding
Even on a normal day, Finsbury Park is one of the busiest on the network – at rush hour it’s like an ant hill
Who in their right mind thought this suburban interchange could cope with the volume of passengers who use the much larger King’s Cross? Even on a normal day, Finsbury Park is one of the busiest stations on the network. It’s where the Great Northern overground meets the Victoria and Piccadilly Tube lines. At rush hour, it’s like an ant hill.
Trying to cram into that mix those who wanted to catch long-distance trains on the East Coast main line was the act of a madman. Finsbury Park is also the principal station serving the Emirates Stadium. Just as well Arsenal weren’t at home or the Hillsborough anology could have become grim reality.
A few miles west, Paddington station was also in chaos because of over-running engineering works.
By the time the King’s Cross trains were running again, passengers were packed into dangerously overcrowded carriages, having no option but to stand for hours all the way from London to Scotland.
Paying hundreds of pounds for a ticket doesn’t even buy you a guaranteed seat these days. The only surprise is that they weren’t forced to sit on the roof or hang from the side of carriages, like rail travellers in India.
By the time the King’s Cross trains were running again, passengers were packed into dangerously overcrowded carriages
Network Rail is a classic example of the way all of our ‘world-class public services’ — from the NHS, to the airports, to the police — are run entirely for the benefit of those who work for them
Meanwhile, at King’s Cross, signalmen were reduced to using red and yellow flags to shunt trains — just like they did in Victorian times.
The way things are going, we’re headed back to the time when Stephenson’s Rocket had to be accompanied by a man with a red flag walking 60 yards in front of the locomotive. The only difference now is that the bloke with the flag would have to wear a hi-viz jacket.
While all this mayhem was unfolding, one man who was fortunate enough to be sitting in front of a roaring fire was Mark Carne, the chief executive of the company responsible.
Carne, the £675,000-a-year boss of Network Rail, was holed up 250 miles away in his country house in Cornwall. Even when the scale of this catastrophic cock-up became apparent, Carne still refused to cut short his holiday.
He could only bring himself to issue a mealy-mouthed statement ‘regretting’ any disruption caused. Still, what does he care? He’s in line for a £135,000 bonus this year.
The other guilty man is Robin Gisby, the director in charge of maintenance, who is paid £378,000 plus a pension contribution of £148,000 and a £300,000 golden handcuffs ‘retention’ bonus.
Yet, judged on their performance over the festive season, these men give every impression of being incapable of organising a proverbial in a brewery. But why should they worry? Their incompetence and indifference doesn’t hurt their pocket — only the people who pay their wages and inflated rail fares.
Network Rail isn’t a proper company, it’s a ‘not for dividend’ quango, 100 per cent owned by the State. The only dividends go to the directors. And the only sanction the firm faces is a hefty fine from the rail regulator.
So, absurdly, outrageously, the people who will have to pay any fine are taxpayers — including those unfortunate souls stranded at Finsbury Park or packed in sweltering carriages like veal calves on their way to slaughter.
If half the money spent turning railway stations into glitzy shopping malls had been spent on track and rolling stock, perhaps the chaos this Christmas could have been avoided
Network Rail is a classic example of the way all of our ‘world-class public services’ — from the NHS, to the airports, to the police, to local council rubbish collections — are run entirely for the benefit of those who work for them, not those who actually pay for them and have no alternative but to use them.
This year it was the railways. Last year it was the police closing the M6 most of Christmas Day while they attended to a car which had left the road in the early hours of the morning — and to hell with those motorists and their families who had their big day utterly ruined.
Whether they are directly State-owned or nominally part of the private sector, whenever any ‘service’ has a monopoly the customer always comes last.
If half the money spent turning railway stations into glitzy shopping malls had been spent on track and rolling stock, perhaps the chaos this Christmas could have been avoided.
It’s the same with the airports. I’ve written before about the way they are set up for maximum commercial gain — with the actual business of air travel tacked on as a very poor second.
There’s nothing wrong with providing shops and decent restaurants. But in the U.S. these are set apart from security and departure gates. It’s possible to board a plane in America without having to run the gauntlet of dopey birds spraying after-shave and perfume in your face.
In Britain, passengers are deliberately forced to walk through these shopping malls to get to their flights. There’s no escape route.
When you get to security, you are confronted with notices warning you that anyone who abuses the staff will be prosecuted.
Carne, the £675,000-a-year boss of Network Rail, was holed up 250 miles away in his Cornwall country house. Even when the scale of this catastrophic cock-up became apparent, he refused to cut short his holiday
It isn’t just airports, either. These warning signs are prevalent across the public sector.
But, hang on, why would anyone want to abuse staff who are only trying to do a difficult job?
It’s because ‘customers’ — as they insist on calling us — are seen as an inconvenience, to be bullied and buggered about as much as possible. This isn’t usually the fault of the, often poorly-paid, front-line employees, who are only following orders from the Mark Carnes of this world.
The self-aggrandising managerial class dreams up petty rules and regulations, complete with an exciting range of fines and punishments, while forgetting who pays their wages and what their core function happens to be.
As I keep telling you, whenever you give anyone any power — particularly any ‘public servant’ — they will always, always, always abuse it.
What was I saying last week about the irresistible opportunities the absurd new Scottish drink-drive laws would give the police to harass law-abiding motorists?
I’m reliably informed that at 3.30pm on the day that column appeared, around a dozen coppers turned up at Glasgow Airport and started breathalysing every driver dropping off or picking up passengers — with all the resulting queues and hassle that inevitably caused.
Predictably, over Christmas the deranged North Wales Traffic Taliban breath-tested 11,000 motorists. Only 45 — that’s a minuscule 0.409 per cent — were over the limit.
So 10,955 innocent people were hauled over and treated like criminals for no good reason. North Wales Plod pronounced the operation a great success. Of course they did.
By the time the King’s Cross trains were running again, passengers were packed into dangerously overcrowded carriages, having no option but to stand for hours all the way from London to Scotland
Let’s end where we came in — on the railways. My son travels through Finsbury Park every day on his way to work in Central London. In the run-up to Christmas, two days running there were delays of up to an hour on some ‘services’. No apology, no refunds.
The day ‘services’ returned to what passes for ‘normal’, commuters changing at Finsbury Park from the overground to the Underground were confronted with at least ten inspectors demanding to check their tickets.
Over the next few days, if I were you, I’d settle for sitting in front of a roaring fire.
Happy New Year.