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.


Tim said...

There's a third master, too: the shareholders, to whom the TOCs have a duty to return a profit.

This simple fact makes "privately owned public transport" an oxymoron.

CJ Harrison said...

Maybe so, but the interests of shareholders and consumers are easier bedfellows than the interests of government and consumers. Despite the fact that we live in a democracy, it is also far easier to influence a private company than it is the government.

I accept that a private company isn’t going to deliver a service that pleases all people at all times (see new post today) but then neither does government. After all, it is the government that is responsible for the Greater Western timetable mess, not First Great Western.

Finally, I always worry about the use of the word ‘public’. It is a seemingly innocuous term to describe something that is impossible to attain. If you want a railway run for the public, regardless of economic reality: who is going to define what is in the public interest and who is going to pay for the service required? Moreover, if 95% of travellers are satisfied is it truly a public service as 5% still remain dissatisfied?

Dianne said...

Keep up the good work.