Wednesday, 11 April 2007

More questions than answers

The government’s announcement of 1,000 extra carriages to alleviate overcrowding isn’t so much of a policy as a glib soundbite designed to take some of the heat off an increasingly pressured Department for Transport. Indeed, the whole matter raises far more questions than it answers.

Question one: where will these new carriages go? The Department has already answered this – it doesn’t know or hasn’t yet made a decision! Such a position demonstrates the ad hoc nature of the announcement and the complete lack of planning and foresight within the government’s rail division. Surely capacity increases should be demand driven. In other words, the number of additional carriages should be determined by examining exactly what is needed on the network, where it is required and what it is financially viable to deliver. Requirements certainly shouldn’t be determined by plucking a rounded number out of the air, which is precisely what seems to have happened here.

Question two: how will current franchises benefit from the additional capacity? This applies especially to First Great Western’s franchise, but it is also applicable to others. According to the government’s rather sketchy timetable, additional capacity will start to enter service well within the existing leasing terms of many current franchises. Since the scope and financials for these franchises have already been determined, how will they benefit from additional capacity? Is the government planning to provide the carriages free or for a discounted price? If it isn’t, does it intend to force – by some mechanism – franchisees to pay for additional capacity that wasn’t part of the original franchise specification?

Question three: how much will the new carriages cost? No one knows exactly. Some figures have been bandied around by the Department but none of them are fixed, they are merely rough estimates. It is notable that the Secretary of State for Transport was very careful in his announcement to include the phrase “if the price is right”. In other words, he does not want to fully commit himself to additional carriages without knowing the price. A sensible policy but one that suggests that the announcement was somewhat premature and ill thought through.

Question four: are the additional carriages part of an integrated policy? It is all very well providing more rolling stock but unless it is matched with increases in platform length and other necessary changes in fixed infrastructure then its impact will be somewhat muted. Network Rail recently announced its business plan, but since the government can’t say where the rolling stock is going, it appears highly likely that this plan isn’t fully aligned with the Department’s intentions.

These questions are not academic curiosities: they are critical factors to which there should be answers. It is worrying that the Department for Transport – which is supposed to be the guardian of rail strategy – is not able to provide clarity over any of these points. Can you imagine a private sector business being run in this way? It would be like First Group going out and buying 1,000 new buses without determining where they are to be run; or, British Airways ordering 50 new aeroplanes without having any idea of how they are going to use them.

This current muddle, which is supposed to constitute a strategic vision, is little more than an absurdity – and one which is entirely symptomatic of the lack of focus the government has when it comes to rail policy.

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