Wednesday, 31 January 2007

The art of dodging questions

Yesterday saw questions on transport in the House of Commons and with them came a fresh round of dodging and evasion by the Department for Transport and its ministers.

Julie Morgan, the MP for Cardiff North asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Tom Harris, whether the government would increase capacity on the railways. Mr Harris replied that “the Department is already taking steps to increase the capacity of the railways through the franchising process, the high level output specification…”.

Could this be the same Department for Transport that has cut capacity on First Great Western’s routes by meddling with the timetable and removing peak hour trains? Could this be the same Department for Transport that has refused to underwrite the costs of leasing additional carriages? Could this be the same Department for Transport that has presided over a franchising system increasingly being used as an income stream for the DfT and which makes continuous, long term, capital investment by train operating companies virtually impossible?

The Secretary of State for Transport, Douglas Alexander then made a most evasive statement in response to a question from Albert Owen, MP for Ynys Môn. He said: “there is a misapprehension that franchising agreements prohibit franchisees from adding capacity to services, or putting in place additional services”.

This is partly untrue and mostly misleading. First, most train operating companies, because of their franchise agreements, need specific and written permission from the DfT to operate additional services over and above those outlined in their specification. It is certainly true that the Department is not likely to deny permission, but that permission is still, legally, required – as Mr Alexander should well know. Second, even with permission, train operating companies like First Great Western cannot add too many services if it is not profitable for them to do so. The large majority have hefty premiums to pay back to the government, premiums that were signed up to on the basis of a specification laid down by the DfT, and financial deviation from that specification could spell disaster.

For Mr Alexander to make the point he did demonstrates how desperate the government is to avoid any share of the blame for the issue of under-capacity on the rail network. It’s a neat trick but, logically, it doesn’t stack up. It’s like saying: John Lewis isn’t prevented from opening a department store in every town, village and hamlet in the UK. Planning regulations aside, of course it is. The economics of it don’t stack up so it can’t, and won’t, do such a thing. The exact same situation is true of rail.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the session in the Commons was the opposition’s complete inability to point any of this out to the government. They are consistently failing to hold the DfT to account for its serious mishandling of rail policy. Sometimes it's hard to determine which side is the more incompetent...

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The ‘nasty’ woman from the ‘nasty’ party?

In an attempt to get a better service for her constituents, Theresa May, the Member of Parliament for Maidenhead, has run a particularly vociferous campaign against First Great Western. Unfortunately, her lambasting of the company has been at the expense of holding the real culprits – civil servants and politicians at the Department for Transport – to account.

From an opposition politician, especially one who formerly held responsibility for the shadow transport portfolio, such a failing is both incompetent and negligent. No matter how unintentionally, it has let the real culprits off the hook and, most importantly, has done very little to help Mrs May’s own constituents.

Last week Mrs May went further still when she called for “FGW to be stripped of its franchise” (source: Reading Evening Post). Hopefully, such a statement is a bit of political posturing; a hollow statement designed to make her look tough to the Maidenhead electorate – for if it isn’t and Mrs May is, indeed, serious in her call it demonstrates an outstanding level of political and commercial naïveté.

First Great Western cannot be stripped of its franchise just because trains are overcrowded or a little late: aside from the fact that the overcrowding is mainly down to the DfT and its timetable meddling, First Great Western has a franchise agreement that can’t simply be ripped up because Mrs May decides she doesn’t particularly like the service. Even if this could be done – any other operator would face exactly the same problems as FGW in trying to run services under a tight specification set by the government.

What’s more, if private train operating companies could actually have their contracts terminated at the caprice of politicians, as Mrs May wishes, it would do immense harm to the rail industry. No companies would be willing to go to the expense of bidding for a franchise that they could lose in the blink of an eye: investment would dry up and passengers would suffer.

It’s high time Mrs May started to be a little less strident and a little more intelligent in her comments.

Monday, 29 January 2007

The five golden rules of rail

1. If you allow civil servants in Whitehall to set a rail timetable you will get a service which isn’t driven by demand but, rather, is created on the back of political and financial considerations.

2. If the government cuts subsidy from the rail network or phases it out over time then some unprofitable services will disappear; capacity on unprofitable routes will be diminished.

3. If you have a franchise bidding process which makes it ever more expensive for train operating companies to run services, fare increases will naturally follow.

4. If you only offer companies short term franchises of 10 years, you won’t get significant and continuing levels of capital investment from those firms; this is especially so if the cost of running the services is pushed ever higher.

5. If you permit excessive levels of political interference in the day-to-day running of rail services, you’ll end up with a network which is unresponsive to consumers and unattractive to investors.

In other words: the recent spate of problems with First Great Western are, in the main, political problems. They are the direct result of a rail system which is subject to unwarranted levels of political interference by people who are uncommercial, know little about rail and have no incentive to deliver good levels of customer service.

Would a rail system run solely by First Great Western, without political meddling, be perfect? Probably not. Would it be a lot better than the rail system we have now? Absolutely.

Won't the real villain please stand up...

Last week saw the First Great Western franchise debated by Members of Parliament.

Naturally, MPs of all parties used the opportunity to pass judgement on First Great Western with many strongly criticising the company for its recent performance. Unfortunately, as is so typical of today’s inept political class, the large majority of those who spoke failed to grasp the fact that the problems with the Greater Western franchise have, primarily, been caused by political factors outside of FGW’s control. In other words: they failed to hold the government to account for its incompetence and bungling in setting the terms for the new franchise.

Towards the end of the debate, however, a rare chink of common sense managed to shine through. It came from Stephen Hammond – the Conservative Shadow Minister for Transport – who made one of the most insightful contributions. He said:

“...the problems are due principally to the Department for Transport and the prescribed franchise that it imposed on First Group. Some understanding of whom should be mentioned in the blame game is important for understanding the problems not only on this part of the network, but on the network as a whole.

It is true that the Government specified the First Group timetable that has reduced services and led to carriages being withdrawn, and that they extracted the premium from First Group that has forced fare increases. I am sure that the Minister will denounce rail privatisation, forgetting that his party has been in charge of the railways for 10 years and that usage has increased. He will remind us that he has had his brief for only four months and that the franchise re-letting took place before that.

I have had the pleasure of sparring with the Minister on transport issues since he has come to the Front Bench and I know him to be one of the good guys. However, he is a representative of the Government, who cannot escape our criticism and questioning. Our debate has proved that the villains of the piece are not only First Group, but the Government.”

And there it is in a nutshell. Thank goodness someone in the political establishment actually gets it!

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Ten years in opposition, and they still don’t get it

Before say anything further, I want to make it clear that I like Boris Johnson. I like him very much. Where most politicians are boring and bland, Boris is colourful. Where most politicians are untruthful, Boris is refreshingly honest. Often too honest for his own good.

Unfortunately, there is a slight problem in that Boris just doesn’t always ‘get it’. To be fair, there is a great deal of truth in his latest piece in the Daily Telegraph. Boris makes it perfectly clear that unwarranted government interference and Treasury penny pinching are the primary cause of the current problems on the First Great Western network. On that he’s quite accurate and it is refreshing to hear a balanced argument rather than the bland bleating of his colleague from Maidenhead, Theresa May.

Where I do take issue is with Boris’ assertion that High Speed Train sets can somehow be magically put into service right here and now. Does he honestly believe that if First Great Western could implement such a solution it wouldn’t jump at the chance to do so? The truth is that some HST sets are currently undergoing refurbishment at the engineering firm Bombardier – such work is necessary to extend the life of this much loved train and also to provide more seating capacity over the course of the franchise. This work cannot be done overnight; it’s a major engineering project which takes time. It is also the case that although there are some spare HSTs ‘knocking around’ the network, they cannot be used on the Great Western Mainline because they are not fitted with Automatic Train Protection (ATP). As unsatisfactory as it may be, safety must always come before passenger comfort or convenience.

What is also lacking from Boris’ article – although not being responsible for the transport brief he can probably be excused of such an omission – is a clear indication of how the Conservatives would do things differently. The Conservtives, as an opposition, can not be excused so easily. They have categorically failed to hold the government to account on the problems the Department for Transport has caused for First Great Western’s customers; and, more importantly, despite being in opposition for ten years, they still have no credible alternative as to how the rail network should be run.

Why I set up this blog

The reason I have set up this blog is simple: it’s to examine the truth behind the train operating company First Great Western.

Over the past month or so, First Great Western has come in for an enormous volume of criticism. This has been directed from all sides and has been about multiple issues including overcrowding, timetable changes and fare hikes.

As a regular traveller on First Great Western and as someone interested in the railways, I have become increasingly frustrated with three aspects of the debate. First, with the sloppy and poor standard of journalism whereby people who know seemingly little about railways spread misinformation and inaccuracies. Second, with politicians in general, whose weak grasp of the intricacies of the rail network makes them completely incapable of holding an intelligent debate on the matter without resorting to attacking First Great Western. And third, and perhaps most importantly, with the lack of responsibility of the Department for Transport which, despite having created most of the problems on the First Great Western network, consistently denies any responsibility.

So why should members of the travelling public be interested? After all, they just want a reliable, clean and effective service – they’re not interested in whys and wherefores of how the rail network is run. Such a position is understandable but having a good grasp of what the problems are and how they are caused is an essential first step in coming up with effective and lasting solutions. If, in the future, you want a better rail network then it’s time to take an interest in the truth behind the issues we face today…

How not to write an editorial

The editorial in today's Oxford Mail is both absurd and extremely naïve. Moreover, it is extremely poor journalism to take things at face value without bothering to investigate the facts behind them.

So, what are the real facts? Well, first and foremost, the railway is controlled by the government, not by the train operating companies. The government, in the guise of the Department for Transport, sets the overall strategy; the government sets the timetable; the government determines the number of services to be run; and, the government decides the overall level of investment. In other words, the government sets the overall strategic framework within which the rail network is run. This has always been the case – it’s just that in the past the responsibility was clearly assigned to the Strategic Rail Authority whereas now it is assigned to some remote team within the transport ministry who can more easily hide from public scrutiny.

The train operating companies, of which First Great Western is one, are responsible for the running of the network within the parameters of the strategy set by the government, and within the confines of their own franchise agreements. So, issues of maintenance, breakdowns, communication and other day-to-day operational issues are all completely within their purview.

So where does the blame for the current problems lie? Clearly, First Great Western must take some responsibility for the maintenance and performance issues. This, it has done and is working to resolve the problems. However, the government is absolutely and categorically responsible for the timetable and for the removal of capacity from the network. This, for fear of a public backlash, it has not admitted to and has, instead, assigned blame to a company which is only running services as set down in its franchise agreement.

The trouble is that First Great Western, which has to maintain good ongoing relationships with the DfT, and its parent company First Group which also has to maintain good relations for fear of not winning future franchises, are both in an impossible position. They simply can’t ‘tell it like it is’ for fear of reprisals from the government and, indeed, from a commercial perspective such a move would be extremely imprudent.

So, as so often happens, the politicians spend half of their time messing things up and the other half trying to pin the blame on someone else and, incredibly, getting away with it. But where, it should be asked, has the political opposition been in all of this. Well, the answer is it too has been busy criticising First Great Western. Conservative Members of Parliament like Theresa May and Ed Vaizey, have been so busy moaning about First Great Western that they have completely failed to do their job and hold the Department for Transport to account for their mishandling of rail policy.

At the end of the day the travelling public, if they don’t want to examine all of the details behind the present situation, should ask themselves one question. Who is more likely to mess up rail services: interfering politicians managing things from Whitehall and with an extensive track record of mucking things up, or rail professionals, who although they do get some things wrong, have extensive experience in running trains and have a great deal to lose – both commercially and economically – by failing to get it right?