Opinion: Chaos on the railways was unforgiveable but no surprise
- Credit: PA
There is a school of thought that news is when the unexpected, the unpredictable or the unforeseen happens. Yet I suspect that among the hundreds and thousands of rail commuters who were caught up in the misery of the travel chaos at King's Cross railway station in London in the days after Christmas there was a good number looking at each other and saying: 'I knew this would happen.'
It was supposed to be a timely move by Network Rail to conduct engineering work during the festive season when, for two days at least, the movement of trains is relatively light.
Yet it was always high-risk too because Christmas Day and Boxing Day were only ever going to be the quiet before the storm –the relative calm before thousands of passengers took to the rails again to return home after a Christmas break or head off to join loved ones for New Year.
And then came the news that the engineering work had over-run, leading to massive problems on the rail network.
It was, however, hardly surprising – how often do we hear that planned weekend work has run over time with Monday morning commuters left to bear the brunt?
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But over the festive season, when it was supposedly carefully-planned and timed, the fact that the work went on longer than scheduled is unforgivable.
What I found particularly disturbing, perhaps cowardly, was the way the head of Network Rail, Mark Carne, hid away in the comfort of his holiday cottage in Cornwall, rather than taking a senior hands-on approach to deal with the situation. His particularly low profile during the chaos was outrageous.
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There are times for leaders to lead, to show strength and tackle issues head on – to share the pain of the discomfort they cause – rather than shrug their shoulders and ignore it because they are on holiday.
Mr Carne did apologise, as did Network Rail's managing director for network operations Robin Gisby, who oversaw the over-running work.
He conceded: 'We've let a lot of people down, I'm afraid, and I can only apologise for that.'
But often an apology is not enough, particularly for what is a persistent problem.
Mr Gisby, according to reports, has been stripped of a £371,000 'golden goodbye' – though not apparently as a result of the latest fiasco. But passengers will find the announcement of it timely.
MPs are also calling for some senior Network Rail managers to be sacked over the festive chaos.
King's Cross was closed on Saturday after engineering works over-ran, meaning thousands of people could not return home after Christmas and Paddington was also temporarily closed.
Many hundreds of people were left queuing in freezing temperatures after being diverted to Finsbury Park station in north London, which was being used as a temporary terminal, before it was closed on police advice.
The problems continued into Sunday, with some trains arriving into King's Cross up to 90 minutes late.
But this is Network Rail we are talking about, an organisation that couldn't keep to a timetable if it tried.
What would be far more reasonable, though hardly any more convenient, is for Network Rail to admit that it can't hit the timescales for engineering work so commuters and travellers can plan in advance, so they know what problems they will face post-Christmas or on a Monday morning, rather than have the surprise – the surprise that hardly surprises anyone any more – that Network Rail has messed up again.
Transport Secretary Mr McLoughlin hit the mood of the travelling public when he said: 'The situation on the railways this weekend has been totally unacceptable. Passengers must be able to trust that vital engineering works on the rail network will be completed on time.'
It is time for someone, perhaps even the government, to again oversee the rail infrastructure rather than leave it in the hands of Network Rail and ever deepening levels of mismanagement.
As a first step, Network Rail chief executive Mr Carne should forfeit his bonus of up to £34,000 which tops up his £675,000 salary.
He hasn't decided whether to take it yet but Anthony Smith's suggestion on the subject sounds a good one.
The chief executive at independent watchdog Passenger Focus, said: 'When things go wrong… it is more difficult for Network Rail to justify performance-related bonuses.
'Perhaps it is time for these payments to be linked with passengers' views of how the network has performed.'
Anything other than Mr Carne declining his bonus is unacceptable and perhaps in truth he too should follow Mr Gisby out of the door.
Or are we again to see yet another case of a company boss being rewarded for failure?