Tuesday, 13 February 2007

The trouble with the Department…

The Department for Transport, similar to the rest of the current government, is arrogant and out of touch. With remarkable consistency it forgets that it is, primarily, there to listen to the electorate and be responsive to their needs.

The government has had responsibility for rail for the past ten years. During that time it should have put in place plans to deal with the very obvious trends of increasing capacity. Passengers knew the rail system was becoming more crowded and have been telling the government so for years; train operating companies saw demand was increasing and told the government so in their franchise projections; and, passenger bodies understood that more people were travelling by rail and have repeatedly lobbied the government over this issue. The warnings have been ample; the opportunities to do something in response have been plentiful. The repeated failure to act has been shameful.

It is now patently clear that this government, this Department for Transport, has absolutely no vision when it comes to the railways. It has no imagination. And it has no plans to take action – or let others such as train operating companies take action – over serious concerns about the future of the rail industry.

Rather, the department prefers to spend its time – and taxpayers’ money – micro-managing the rail network: setting timetables, determining the amount of rolling stock required, arguing over whether a 06.25 service should be permitted to run down a branch line hundreds of miles away from Whitehall. Aside from being a waste of resources, not being sufficiently sensitive enough to passenger needs, it also makes a huge botch of doing all of these things making travellers’ lives a misery in the process. It then has the sheer gall to blame operating companies like First Great Western and let them face the wrath of irate travellers.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Department is now being arrogant over the issue of road pricing. Over a million people have told the government they don’t want it yet Douglas Alexander, the inept Transport Secretary, seems unconcerned saying he’s keen to press ahead. Road pricing, no matter how badly it works, will inevitably increase demand for rail service, putting yet more pressure on the very same rail system that this government is slowly but systematically ruining. Is this really what John Prescott had in mind when he first came up with the principle of integrated transport?

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

A campaign for every reader

The London Evening Standard is one of the most abominable newspapers. Over the past few years its whole purpose seems to have been transformed from a vehicle to transmit news to one of running badly informed ‘campaigns’.

The latest issue to be picked up by the Standard is the ‘a seat for every commuter’ campaign which arose out of the timetable and capacity problems on the First Great Western network. This largely consists of anecdotal evidence and tedious discussions of commuters’ journeys into work. What’s missing from the campaign – indeed what is missing from most of the Standard’s campaigns – is a balanced intellectual argument: why, for example, does overcrowding exists on trains, what sensible policies might be enacted to solve it and, indeed, an analysis of whether it is a problem that is immediately soluble.

Such a considered approach is important. Problems with the rail network will not be solved by spurious newspaper campaigns. Nor will they be solved by customers simply demanding things to get better. If we are to find sustainable, long term solutions there needs to be an informed debate – a debate our politicians seem incapable of initiating. We need, at a most fundamental level, to decide what type of rail system we want and then have to find the most sensible way of brining this about.

The Standard’s campaign does nothing to achieve these aims and, as such, it’s little more than a squandered opportunity.

You can’t please…

…all of the people, all of the time! For certain, it’s an old adage but, when it comes to the railways, there is a great deal of truth in it.

Over the past few months we’ve heard a great deal from rail travellers about their dislikes, their complaints and their demands for better rail services. Some of the comments have been totally justified, others less so; many of the complaints have been directly caused by a system that places the customer on the periphery instead of at the heart of the operation where they belong. This isn’t the fault of operating companies like First Great Western but, rather, is the fault of the government – one of the least customer centric organisations – who have presided over a fundamentally flawed system. Indeed, as an article in today’s Guardian revealed: “the DfT acknowledges it gave the franchise to FCC [First Capital Connect] because it offered good value for money to taxpayers, not necessarily the best service for customers.” Presumably the same is true for the First Great Western franchise.

Changing the nature of the franchising and, indeed the whole rail system, to one which gives more control to operating companies is an essential first step in making the railways more responsive to consumer needs. However, it’s not a panacea: consumers have to be realistic.

No company is going to run hundreds of services on a line where passenger traffic is scarce. No company is going to order hundreds more carriages so there is absolutely no overcrowding in the peak when those same carriages are redundant for the rest of the day. No company is going to build a new line to serve a small hamlet of 17 people. These things are simply not commercially feasible and consumers should expect them no more than they reasonably expect Tesco to open a store on every single street in Britain because it is handy for them to have a supermarket right on their doorstep.

Somewhere along the line, many people got the misguided idea that the railway exists to provide every single customer with the exact service he or she wants – or, more commonly put, to serve the ‘public interest’. It is a dangerous belief. No private company could deliver such a promise, and if no private company could run such a service that only leaves the government. The truth is, however, that the government can’t deliver such a service either and, in attempting to do so, distorts supply further away from demand than any private company would do.

The bottom line is that private companies like First Great Western are much better at delivering on consumers’ needs. They are more innovative than government and far more entrepreneurial at finding solutions to complex problems of meeting demand. But, no matter how good, even they can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Let no man serve two masters

That no man can serve two masters has been a well accepted tenet since biblical days; and it is a principle the Department for Transport would do well to understand as its abrogation is one of the central problems in modern day rail franchising.

Franchisees such as First Great Western currently serve not one, but two masters: the customer and the government. This puts them in a near impossible position. They may well have a desire to serve their customers well by adding services, but what happens when such a policy is at odds with what the Department for Transport wants? In this particular case, the answer is reasonably straightforward: the government wins for it is the granter of the contract and, therefore, the ultimate master.

But this, quite rightly, doesn’t stop customers complaining to the franchisee – as they did en masse to First Great Western over the recent timetable changes – for as far as they are concerned, the franchisee is there to provide them, and not the government, with a service.

The general result, as we have seen over recent weeks, is obfuscation and (legitimate) buck passing between organisations both of which are, ultimately, extremely frustrating for passengers and very difficult for anyone to satisfactorily resolve.

What is required is a much more transparent system. A system where train operating companies like First Great Western are freed from the shackles of government control and can truly serve their customers. If they then fail to do a good job, the customer has a very clear point of redress and the franchisee has a free hand to do something about the dissatisfaction.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Why have a dog and bark yourself?

The Department for Transport’s insistence on setting the First Great Western timetable was always bound to result in problems of supply being misaligned to demand. It is simply bad policy to have remote bureaucrats with scant knowledge of the Great Western region dictating a timetable. But there is a further consideration. Why is the government employing, at very great expense, civil servants to do a job that staff at First Great Western and Network Rail are capable of doing? Surely, the whole point of contacting out the running of rail is so that government can remove itself from the operation and make time and resource savings? Apparently not. The Department for Transport, it seems, is more than happy to waste money on having armies of incompetent civil servants undertaking unnecessary tasks.

Don’t take my word for it

In a recent debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Hanham pointed out the ludicrous control the Department for Transport exerts over the railway. She said:

“The Government's interference extends to government involvement in operations to the extent that officials are writing timetables—indeed, we have Douglas Alexander and his predecessor acting almost like modern-day Fat Controllers … the poorly defined and intrusive role of the Government is undoubtedly a root cause of the problems of the railways. What is required is a strategic framework of the railways, but it is the rail professionals who should run them. Misplaced micromanagement is directly responsible for the flaws and conflicts with the objective of allowing private enterprise to deliver the high-quality services that we all want”

Baroness Hanham is correct in her analysis and in her conclusion; and no where is this more evident than in the First Great Western franchise.

The fact that the Department for Transport insisted in setting the timetable, despite the fact it lacked the knowledge required to undertake such a task, is why so many critical services were cut. The fact that the Department for Transport wanted to strip costs out of the franchise by refusing to underwrite the leasing costs of carriages, despite the fact that it knew passenger numbers were continually rising, is why there are so many capacity problems on First Great Western services.

What the Department for Transport should have done is to determine the amount it wanted to extract from the franchise – i.e. how much First Great Western would have to pay the government for running the contract – and then let the First Great Western’s management team get on with the job of planning the day-to-day operations and timetabling.

If it had done this, there can be very little doubt that services would now be better – maybe not perfect, but certainly better.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Alison or Alexander?

Alison Forster, the current Managing Director of First Great Western, has a long and distinguished career in the railway industry.

Having worked on the Great Western network, in one capacity or another, since 1988 she has an intricate knowledge of the region and its rail operation. She also has a solid track record of competence and dedication. It was Alison Forster who, no less than three times, wrote to Railtrack before the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster to warn them that Signal 109 was repeatedly being passed on red and that it posed a threat to rail safety. Her warnings were ignored. Had they been followed up, the Ladbroke Grove crash would probably never have happened.

Alison Forster is also an extremely visible Managing Director. She corresponds with members of the public over their concerns; she regularly travels on her own trains; and, when in out and about, she wears her badge at all times so passengers can come and talk – or complain – to her.

Compare this wealth of experience to that of the present Secretary of State for Transport, Douglas Alexander. Mr Alexander has virtually no experience of running anything. He has virtually no experience of rail. Indeed, he has spent only the smallest fraction of his career outside of the political arena. Mr Alexander is also unaccountable: he and his department hide behind the train operating companies and let them take the heat for unpopular decisions imposed by the government – just as he has done with the First Great Western timetable changes.

How can someone with so little experience be expected to manage something as intricate as the rail network? How can they be accountable if they are not prepared to take responsibility for their own decisions?

The simple answer is that they can’t. And it is for precisely this reason that we should leave the running of the rail network up to the Alison Forster’s of this world rather than the Douglas Alexander’s.

Evidence of the DfT’s culpability

An interesting document [PDF format] has come to light under the Freedom of Information Act. The document details discussions between Chiltern Railways and the Department for Transport over the December 2006 timetable.

What the document makes clear is that in seeking changes to the specified timetable Chiltern has to be grated permission for such changes from the DfT before they can be implemented. The text on page 7 explicitly shows that it is the DfT that has the final say on timetable changes and not train operating companies.

First Great Western is in exactly the same position as Chiltern in that any timetable deviations – including those made recently to Oxford services – need approval by the Department for Transport via the appropriate derogations. It is, therefore, a patent falsehood for the Department to claim that First Great Western is responsible for the timetable and can make changes as and when it wishes.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, a request has been made for the documents relating to the specific discussions between First Great Western and the Department over the December 2006 timetable and the subsequent changes. Any forthcoming information will be published to this page.