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.

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