Thursday, 25 January 2007

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?

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