Monday, 12 March 2007

Better late than never

Some of the fiercest critics of First Great Western have been Conservative MPs: Teresa May, Ed Vaizey and Boris Johnson have, in particular, been scathing with their criticism. It is, of course, understandable that these MPs should be concerned about the service that is provided to their constituents. It is equally understandable that they want to appear ‘tough’ to the electorate and that the issues surrounding the Greater Western franchise have provided them with an ideal platform for the flexing of their muscles.

Nevertheless, in placing the blame at First Great Western’s door, the MPs have let the Department for Transport off the hook. It is, after all, the department’s absurd micromanagement – or micro mismanagement – of the rail network which has created so many of the problems that now exist. This is a lamentable failure on the part of the Conservatives – for if opposition MPs can’t, or won’t, hold the government to account, then who will?

It was notable, therefore, that the Shadow Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, in a recent speech seemed to recognise that the fundamental problem with today’s railways lies not with the train operating companies but with the way it is run and controlled by the government.

Mr Grayling identified two barriers to the future success of Britain’s railways. The first of which is too much political interference: “Douglas Alexander is inheriting a Department that has more operational involvement in our railways than ever the Government did when British Rail was around. I think it makes no sense at all to have railway timetables written by Government officials”, he said. And he is right: as this blog has stated before, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for a remote government department to do a job that seasoned professionals could do so much better.

The second barrier is the way in which the industry is structured, involving the separation of track and train. This of course was a Conservative failure in the way the system was privatised – so it is a significant admission on Mr Grayling’s behalf. However, this recognition of failure must be warmly welcomed for, indeed, the lack of control the train operating companies have over their essential infrastructure is a root cause of many of today’s problems. Integrating the network would make for a much more customer responsive system that works for rail operators and passengers, rather than – as it so often does now – against them.

The Conservatives will, no doubt, be formalising their rail policy over the next year or so. As a start, however, it is encouraging that they have quickly identified so many of the root problems. What they need to do, however, is to stop the appalling attacks on a private company by their Members of Parliament and start directing the criticism where it belongs – with the Department for Transport.

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