09 June 2007
The Wemyss Bay Incident
David Farrer

I read about this story on the scot-rail.co.uk discussion site.

Wemyss Bay is a small village on the north Ayrshire coast. It serves as the terminal for ferries to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. A train service from Glasgow “connects” with the ferry.

On the day of the “incident” the ferry arrived about 10 minutes late at Wemyss Bay and the 25-or-so passengers rushed up the ramp to the rather beautiful station to make the train connection. You can probably guess what happened next. Yes, the conductor shut the doors and let the train leave a few seconds before any of the passengers were able to board. The next train is an hour later.

Then:

The station supervisor, hastily beat a retreat to his booking office and pointed to a sign ,in true jobsworth tradition ,stating that trains would not be held for late boats!

This event has generated a lot of interesting comments, but it seems likely that the conductor may well have been acting rationally - if he wanted to keep his job.

The train itself is operated by First ScotRail but the track and stations are under the control of Network Rail, essentially an arm of the government. Train operators must pay substantial fines to Network Rail should any of their trains run late. But Wemyss Bay is a tiny station with one train per hour, you may think. Yes, but a few miles down the track the line is joined by the one from Gourock with three trains per hour (each way). A little bit further and you’re at Paisley Gilmour Street where the line from Ayr and Largs comes in with four more passenger trains per hour in both directions as well as coal trains running up from Ayrshire and aviation fuel going down to Prestwick airport. Ten minutes later you’ll be approaching Glasgow Central, the busiest UK station outside London. So a couple of minutes’ delay at Wemyss Bay could have led to a series of hold ups, literally down the line, that could have inconvenienced thousands of people, costing goodness knows how much in money terms.

Many of the commenters on the thread work in the railway industry and make it clear that the “jobsworth” conductor had no choice but to signal the train off on time, with or without the passengers.

Needless-to-say, some folk blamed all this on privatisation and the “bean counter” mentality. Forgetting for the moment that it’s the quasi-government entity Network Rail that levies the fines, I’d like to defend the “bean counters”, partly because I am one myself.

Accountants are there to tell management this:

If you want to do “X”

It’ll cost you “Y”

And - this is the most important bit - you can’t therefore use the same resources to do “Z”.

Or, putting it colloquially, “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

That’s true whether the system is capitalist or socialist, but capitalism provides the incentives that guide us to use resources in the most efficient manner, as judged by consumers.

In the ideal world there’d be a train waiting for us at the station no matter when we turned up. In fact I’d like my own personal train to be kept ready at Haymarket, steam fully primed, dining car fully stocked, and ready to take me wherever I want to go at no charge. But the world isn’t made like that and folk who think it is - let’s call them socialists - are deluded. I’ll try and remember that next time I’m at Wemyss Bay.

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