Tuesday, 6 February 2007

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.

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