Monday, 19 March 2007

Sticking plaster

While the government’s announcement of 1,000 additional train carriages by 2014 is to be welcomed, the commitment represents the metaphorical equivalent of applying a sticking plaster to a patient who is haemorrhaging over the floor of the operating theatre. Furthermore, the plaster is being applied by the very same people who inflicted the wounds in the first place and, before taking this action, they stood watching for quite a while as the blood drained away and the patient descended into a medical crisis. Maybe that’s stretching the metaphor a bit too far, but you get the general idea: it’s too little, too late and does nothing to solve the, underlying, political problems of the rail system.

While the solution may be questionable, the government’s timing is prudent. The issue of rail overcrowding is a growing problem which is angering travellers well beyond the First Great Western franchise; in some areas passengers are in open revolt and are demanding action. But to anyone with any degree of knowledge about the railways this should come as no surprise. Passenger numbers have been rising for over a decade: by the Transport Secretary’s own admission by 40% since 1996. Yet capacity has been increasing at nowhere near the same rate and very little has been done to address this disparity between supply and demand. The current crunch, squeeze, crush or whatever other descriptive term you wish to apply to it, is the inevitable result.

That the government, which is the ultimate controller of the system, has sat on its hands for ten years is bad enough but, in some instances, it has actively exacerbated the problem of overcrowding. Take, for example the December 2006 timetable for First Great Western’s trains. Quite what objectives the Department for Transport’s planners had in mind when they designed this is unclear, but maximising capacity certainly wasn’t one of them. Indeed, their meddling has actually reduced capacity from busy commuter stations making trains even more crowded than ever before. If the government were serious about the solving the problem of overcrowding it would allow train operating companies, who know much more about the requirements of their customers, to at draw up timetables – or, at the very least, to have a much greater say in their creation. But the reality is, the present administration just doesn’t trust professionals to make decisions – they’d rather have decision making centralised in Whitehall.

So what of the train operating companies like First Great Western? Surely they could have added capacity? That would, of course be the ideal and, in theory, it’s what should happen. Train operating companies should see that passenger numbers are increasing as part of a long term trend and, in response, they should invest in new rolling stock to meet this demand and to attract further customers. That’s the theory. But under the current system, it isn’t – and will never be – the practice. Buying new trains is an expensive business. This in itself isn’t a huge problem: capital will always flow to any venture where it can make a return so, provided there is a demand for them, finding the money for new trains is perfectly feasible. But, there is the matter of the time taken for a return to be made. With franchise terms of seven to ten years, no train operating company is going to invest significant amounts in rolling stock quite simply because there is no time for them to get their money back. Until the lengths of franchises are made significantly longer, using train operating companies as a route to increased capacity simply isn’t feasible. And with the subsidy profile for many franchises being phased out, this is more the case now than ever before.

So, that leaves the government as one of the only sources of capital investment. But while government is financially profligate, it has many demands on its expenditure and can never be guaranteed to give rail the priority it needs. Moreover, government by its nature is short-term in its outlook. So even where a long term return can be made, why should a government today spend money only for a different administration to reap the rewards tomorrow? That’s part of the reason the announcement of increased capacity – which should have come ten years ago – has only just arrived and it’s also the reason why by the time the increase capacity is with commuters there will be a whole set of different problems that then have to be addressed, yet again caused by a misallocation of supply to demand.

Yet, even under this crazy system there is a simpler way. Over the next ten years the government is set to take huge amounts from franchises such as First Great Western’s where a premium of over £1bn is set to be paid. While part of this can be used to fund new trains by the Department, if the government were serious about alleviating overcrowding it could call up First Great Western and ask them in return for a reduction in the premium to keep the Class 180s Adelantes – assuming they have not now been assigned elsewhere – and use them, as well as the additional and refurbished HSTs to help improve capacity. That they haven’t done this shows their lack of commitment to making life easier for rail travellers.

So for the time being it’s jam tomorrow – both figuratively, and for long suffering commuters, quite literally

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