Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Guilty, by their own admission

In a previous blog entry we mentioned that we were seeking, under the Freedom of Information Act, proof that First Great Western could not change services without express permission from the Department for Transport. Today, this proof has been provided.

The derogations against the changes to Oxford services announced on 9 January 2007, offer categorical evidence that First Great Western cannot change the timetable without authorisation from the Secretary of State. This is at odds with the Department’s past assertions that train companies are free to run additional trains: they are clearly not free unless the Department agrees with, and rubber stamps, their plans.

However, the information released also reveals something else which is highly significant.

It shows how the December 2006 version of SLC2 (Service Level Commitment 2) was changed by the government to significantly worsen the services provided to passengers. Route D2, where previously three additional services were required from Oxford, was changed to require just two additional services. Route C1, which is also mentioned, also suffered from such a reduction in service. In other words, the government built in the reduction in service into SLC2 (which drives the timetable) thereby causing the problems with capacity and frequency. Of course, these are just two of the very many reductions the Department will have prescribed.

The issue remains that the government exerts too much control over the railways. It is interfering and meddling in areas where it has no business to be and, in so doing, it is making life difficult for the travelling public and train companies alike.


Billyo said...


I have been reading your blog (and publication) with interest, and have linked to it from mine, where as well as other things, I update my letters and responses to the DfT. Also the problems I experience travelling with FGW, most of which I can assure you are nothing to do with the restraints placed on them by the Government.

I agree with much of what you say, and have been arguing that the DfT is mostly to blame for the current disgraceful state of the Greater Western Franchise.

But I feel that you are trying to deflect a bit too much blame away from FGW. You are right that FGW can't simple add services, but the DfT is unlikely to stop them adding services if they wanted to, as the Oxford situation has shown. The DfT is also not likely to stop FGW adding more carriages, as they have on exceptionally overcrowded services at Oldfield Park.

My point is that FGW could, increase their profits by running by simply running a better service. I'm not nieve enough to think that obscure branch lines should be run for the sake of a handful of passengers. But taking Melksham for example, they now have no services for nearly 12 hours each day (7am to 7pm) despite the former services being packed to the rafters (and therefore presumably profitable). I believe the DfT overlooked these services in the December timetable because it's passenger numbers were woefully out of date. But FGW have not persued putting them back because, although profitable, due to large amounts of commuters (i.e. regulated fares) the margins were not as big as the HST lines and therefore couldn't be bothered to put them back on.

Who's to blame here. DfT? For sure, they should have written into the service agreement a better service for Melksham. But FGW could put those services back. They chose not to.

I would be very interested to know your views on the extensive padding, which has got a lot worse in the new timetable. I'm told that a journey from Bristol to London now takes 20 minutes longer than it did 5 years ago, due to waits at Bath/Swindon/Reading. Also on one morning service from Bath to Cardiff there is a timetabled pad of some 17 minutes.

Were these written in by the DfT? If so why? What did the DfT have to gain by this? These serve to assist FGW by allowing them to catch up time when running late, because statistics on late trains are only counted on arrival at final destination. What it means for customers is our journeys take longer despite the trains travelling at the same speed.

Would we not, be better off with more Padding at destination stations, so that a) train break downs are less, because they have less strain on them. b) time is made up here. c) Passengers have cleaner trains because there is time to clean them.

The current padding on route only serves to try to cover up FGW's failings. I would guess therefore that these pads were lobbied for when the DfT drew up it's December timetable.

CJ Harrison said...


Thanks for your comment.

I can understand why you may see this blog as trying to deflect all of the blame away from First Great Western. However, I think this is really more an issue of focus rather than of explicit bias. I established the blog with a very specific remit: to highlight many of the real causal factors behind the problems on the Greater Western network – the things that weren’t being discussed on other sites, by the media or by politicians. The specificity of this remit means that, obviously, most articles look at macro-issues, most of which are outside of FGW’s control.

Does this mean that First Great Western is completely blame free? Absolutely not. Does it mean there isn’t anything they could do better or change to make life easier for passengers? Absolutely not. I have always recognised this and do make mention of it – albeit in passing – in some of the articles.

That said, in my view the focus I have applied is necessary for two reasons. The first is obvious in that there are lots of sites critiquing First Great Western – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly – and I don’t see the necessity to add another one to that extensive list. The second reason is a little less obvious. The system – the macro structure of the railways – is the biggest barrier to a better rail service. The way in which it’s structured at the moment is perverse and leads directly to most of the issues we face today. Without changing the structure, there will be no significant improvement. Certainly, there are things that can be done – but it’s all about tinkering on the periphery rather than resolving the deep seated problems.

I cannot comment specifically on the Melksham situation as I do not know enough about all the details behind it. However, if there is a genuine commercial opportunity here, it does seem odd that it is not being exploited. My only suggestion is that there is, somewhere, a constraint that prevents action from being taken. That constraint could be any one of a number of things: a lack of suitable rolling stock at a suitable price; a lack of staff resource to make the line operationally feasible; an unattractive margin; a lack of management time to implement a new service; and so on. Time permitting it is something I will try and look into as it is an interesting point.

Padding! Well, my top level view is that it’s typical of a culture obsessed by performance measures rather than by actual performance. It’s the same as hospital waiting lists: massage the list, see the measure improve and say that everything’s getting better. The reality on the ground, of course, is that things are just as bad as they were before – it’s just that we can now pretend that they aren’t. Frankly, trying to bend reality in this way is nothing more than silly and childish. It is an evasion of the truth and, actually, it hampers real performance improvements as no one is able to accurately monitor the true situation.

Who is to blame in general? Politicians certainly, mainly for instilling this culture and building in easily-corrupted performance measures to the franchise specifications. Operating companies, certainly, as they have an incentive to be seen to be performing better and, indeed, some of the franchise extensions rely on attaining certain performance targets. Network rail, certainly – for the same reason as the operating companies. All parties are complicit in this matter – but, as you say, it’s the public that suffers.

One thing I would note is that on an ever more crowded rail infrastructure which has suffered from a chronic lack of investment, it is increasingly difficult to run trains in a timely fashion. There is very little slack and only the smallest thing needs to happen to knock a large part of the timetable out. That’s not defending padding, of course, but is a problem that needs solving. At Reading for example, there is a bottle neck which needs to be solved by new platforms, track layout and signals. Such investment would make journey times much faster and would reduce delays meaning less padding was necessary. Some of this investment is being made by Network Rail over the next few years.

Thanks again. I will be sure to add your blog to my links if I ever get around to updating them!

Billyo said...

Save the Train (Melksham) is or there's a link from my website.

I think you're absolutely right in pointing out which problems are caused by FGW and which my the DfT. Many people do not know which are which.

I've been writing constantly to FGW with regards to poor performance, mindless stupidity of the part of (the minority) of their staff etc. And I've also been writing to the DfT to find out why fares were increased.

One thing you do not mention (or at least I've not found it) on your blog is that the government has not protected all "regulated" fares. In the Bristol area, Saver tickets and Weekly Season tickets rose 13% in January, despite these fare supposedly being regulated to inflation +1% by the government.

This despite the fact that in Bristol and Bath, First run all the buses and all the trains. The DfT supposed to regulate fare in areas where one company has a monopoloy. This seems like a monopoly to me. And yet fare were increased by 13%.

I seems to me that the DfT wanted boost income into the Greater Western Franchise, put would have incurred much negative publicity by having 13% increases for commutes into London. So fares were put up in the West, so that we could, in effect subsidise transport across the franchise. A bit unfair me thinks.

Maybe I'm a bit cynical, but I also believe that FGW then deliberately ran the most appalling service during January and February so that headlines in the west would be grabbed by people sitting on the bogs rather than the fare increases. Then once everyone has forgotten they are paying 13% more for their ticket they return services to "normal".

Keep up the excellent work. If you have any plans for tangible action at the DfT, let me know. I'll be there.