As St Jude’s storm causes commuter chaos, can our transport industry cope with bad weather?


Network Rail and the train companies should receive credit for the sensible safety precautions they have taken in response to this severe storm. Reports of over 100 trees blocking lines or bringing down overhead cables have vindicated these precautions, and have prevented commuters being stranded for hours on blocked lines or, worse, being hit by falling debris. We looked at the issue of crisis planning in a recent occasional paper, and concluded that good communication is critical to mitigating the effects of weather-related disruption. In this case, we are pleased to note that commuters were warned through the national media in advance on Sunday and there have been frequent online and broadcast updates. So long as the media, transport providers, and emergency services always work together, our transport industry can always develop a coherent response to such crises, and get services running as quickly as possible once the danger has passed. Matthew Niblett is secretary-general of the Independent Transport Commission.


Our transport industry might be better at coping with bad weather if it operated in a truly competitive market. But with rail that is not the case. All train tracks in the UK are owned and operated by Network Rail. Once they had announced that their checks would take up yesterday morning, the disruption of services was guaranteed. Imagine a different system, in which different parts of the track are operated by different companies. We could compare their clearing performances. They would each feel they have to work as quickly as the best in class. You could go further, and have different train services competing on the same tracks. Then there would be, literally, a first mover advantage. The first firm to get their trains running would pick up all the marginal revenue on a morning when there’s disruption. There are risks in this. But there’s no getting around the fact that monopoly services have weak incentives to reduce disruption and improve performance. Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation.