Just imagine… if they asked Ofcom to run the railways. A little bit of weekend whimsy.
In this exclusive interview, The Red Light Zone hears how the U.K. broadcasting regulator, Ofcom will now oversee Britain’s local rail services in the same way they have transformed local radio.
RLZ: Thankyou for agreeing to this interview. That surprised us, to be honest.
OFC: Well, a book about red signalling lights and such is our kind of thing now.
RLZ: Er… well, anyway. Let’s press on. So, you did quite a job with local radio. Will we see a similar approach to local train services?
OFC: Absolutely. First of all we plan to re-define that word ‘local’. Take Wales for example.
RLZ: OK, what parts of Wales will be defined as ‘local’?
OFC: All of it. We see it as one small local area. But for Scotland it will be different. We’re dividing that into two areas which we’ll call ‘profitable’ and ‘the north’. You see, we have listened very closely to the industry, to the people who actually operate the services and we need to safeguard their interests.
RLZ: Which are?
OFC: Making as much money as possible. So that’s why we’ve agreed to let them close lots of local lines, stations and services and replace them with a single, cost-efficient express service from Glasgow to London.
RLZ: That doesn’t sound so good.
OFC: But the operators are promising big improvements. They plan to spend much more money on celebrity drivers. Maybe not A-list celebs, but certainly people you will have seen on the telly.
RLZ Do these celebrities know anything about driving trains?
OFC (laughs) I mean, how hard can it be? Besides, all of this is in response to customer demand. Research shows that people spend more time on trains if the journeys are longer, so it makes sense to ditch the shorter local journeys. People prefer walking and they like to count their steps on those digital pedometers. Everything’s digital now and we have to move with the times. New technology and all that.
RLZ: So you consulted the public about this?
OFC: Of course.
RLZ: And most people agreed with your approach?
OFC: No, most disagreed, actually, so we had to look at other research.
RLZ: And who paid for that research?
OFC: You’ll be glad to know it wasn’t the tax-payer. No, it was the commercial operators themselves. Very kind of them don’t you think? I mean, these companies are facing challenging times.
RLZ. Yet they can afford celebrity drivers…and I recently saw one of them paid a Tory MP for a speaking engagement.
OFC. Nothing wrong with that.
RLZ: They paid him in Champagne.
OFC: Maybe, but was it a good vintage? These are the real questions you should be asking.
RLZ OK. So what else will Ofcom be doing with this new remit over trains?
OFC. Well we do have to protect the viability and profitability of the big operators, so we’ll be cracking down hard on the little fish. I’m talking about local steam services run by amateur enthusiasts. Those people represent an existential threat to the entire industry and we’ll be tightening the rules further to ensure they don’t take a single penny in revenue away from the big boys.
RLZ: I see. Anything else? What about punctuality. Passengers get angry and frustrated if trains don’t run to time.
OFC. They certainly do and we’ve seen some very bad language from those people. We’ll be fining people for that. We’re good at that sort of thing.
RLZ: This has been very enlightening. If I want more information about how this impacts on my journeys, presumably I can get that from my local radio station?
OFC: Ha! Not anymore. We’ve seen to that.