Wednesday, 4 April 2007

On the sunny side of the street

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of negativity; complaining about things and analysing what’s gone wrong, makes for far more compelling blog entries and media stories than highlighting what’s going right. So, while there are many legitimate problems with rail travel, we shouldn’t forget that there are some positives too.

Alison Forster, the Managing Director of First Great Western, has highlighted many of these plus points in her most recent letter to customers. This comes on top of yesterday’s announcement by Network Rail of a significant future investment in network infrastructure – some of which will be spent on projects in the Greater Western region.

Needless to say, all of these things will take time to be implemented. Unfortunately rail is not an industry where changes can be made overnight – even if and when capital is readily available to spend. But, in sum, these positive measures will, over the longer term, make life easier for the travelling public. As Ms Forster notes in her message: “individually, each one of our changes does not make a headline, but taken together they are like a barometer that is moving from stormy to change and on to fair”.

None of this negates the fact that there are still serious structural problems in the rail industry. Nor does it alter the difficulties that such a structure will continue to create for those companies trying to deliver a service to customers. Nevertheless, it’s always good to appreciate that, on an otherwise shady street, there is still some sun to be had.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on much of the "policy" stuff that you say about the ownership and structure of the railway, but I don't understand why you view FGW though rose-tinted spec. Regardless of the fact that they are working under a poorly thought-out system system, FGW are absolutely rubbish at what they do and they don't deserve the uncritical approach that you take with them. All the TOCS have distinctive features and personalities - Virgin is flashy and sometimes fails to live up to its own hype but it is ambitious and innovative. Chiltern is steady and incremental in its approach - a safe pair of hands. GNER is stylish and classy (despite not being terribly reliable it gets off lightly becuase of this). Wessex was down to earth, straightforward and honest.

But FGW is rubbish - badly run by staff who are either incompetant and rude or demoralised by their incompetent management. They have been in charge of at least part of their network for 10 years and yet absolutely no improvements have been made. You can't blame the industry structure for the following:

1, Wasting money 4 different and all hideous liveries (what sort of idiot designs a livery in which bits of the train that get the most dirt like the doors are painted white?)

2, Insincere automatic appologies about delays.

3, lengthening journey times year on year and then filling every piece of literature from their on board magazine to their DfT franchise submission with LIES abouit how their trains are faster.

4, agreesive ticket inspection staff who make you feel like a criminal even if you have a ticket.

5, Installing ticket barriers at Paddington but only on the long distance platforms where on-train inspections work.

6, Lieing about the motive for these barriers by saying that they are to improve customer security and then leaving them open in the evening when anti-social behaviour is more of a problem.

7, Selling tickets on tehir website which are the wrong size for the barriers and then making like it is the passengers fault when you have to be let throught by a member of staff.

8, Fitting new engines to their trains (the same new engines that GNER uses) in such an incompetatnt way that 4 of their power cars catch fire.

9, LYING about the most recent fire by telling the press it was not a fire but "dust" (despite eye witnesses, BTP, Network Rail and Wiltshire Fire Service all saying it was a fire).

10, sustained bottom of league performance.

11, Spending millions on refurbishing their HST coaches including a swanky new toliet with everything in it new except for the shaver sockets which still sport grafiti from the 1970s

12, intruducing travelling chef (good idea) but providing it so irratically that no-one can rely on it and then wondering why passengeres give up using it.

13, Putting fares up and then issuing Orwellian statments telling us that fares have fallen

14, Labelling all of the antimacassers in Standard class with the word "First" (only an idiot could fail to see that this would cause problems)

15, Introducing penalty fares in the Bath area in such an incompetant way that it was actually illegal because insufficient notice was given and then withdrawing and reintroducing it (how much money did this waste?)

16, putting stickers on the HSTs saying that ATP is in fitted and then releasing a press release saying that they have made the trains safer when in fact ATP was installed by BR and all FGW did was install the stickers!

I agree that the current system knobbles the TOCS, but every other TOC manages to do at least OK despite the poor system. FGW performs much worse then anyone else. The main advantage of a more market-driven structure to teh industry is that it would lead to idiot operators like FGW going bust.

Appearances do matter and FGW have managed to create an impression that they are greedy, incompetant and dishonest. A tipping point has been reached and noone is anymore prepared to give them teh benefit of thedoubt. I reckon the majority of their passengers now want them to fail and will not be satistfied or convinced that the service is improving until they get kicked off the franchise regardless of what acutually happens on the ground.

They have failed and they only have themselves to blame.

Anakin Skywalker said...

You charge this site with taking an uncritical approach to First Great Western. I reject this allegation outright. The purpose of the site is to examine some of the myths surrounding First Great Western; it is categorically not to discuss the minutiae of issues such as the colour of doors on trains. Such things are not particularly interesting and, in any case, there are a great many other sites which do address these concerns.

Despite the fact this blog has the focus and remit it does, it does not automatically follow that it endorses everything First Great Western does or that it agrees with every aspect of policy of the company. No more so than a writer congratulating Glenda Jackson on her acting abilities can be assumed to be endorsing her political beliefs. As has been mentioned several times on the site, and in comments, First Great Western, like any other company, is far from perfect. They do make mistakes and they admit to making mistakes. Unless they directly affect the system and nature of the railways, it just isn’t the purpose of this blog to deal with them.

All of that said, I want to deal with some of the points you make, some of which are unfair, others of which are inaccurate or based on a very partial reading of the truth.

You claim that First Great Western is poor compared to other Train Operating Companies. GNER is classy and stylish, you say. I would agree, it certainly is and its brand image was much better than First Great Western’s. Unfortunately, the company was completely incapable of accurately forecasting its financials and, therefore, had to hand back the keys to the franchise. Personally speaking, I’d rather have a more basic brand image and be financially successful than have something flashy that leaves me out of pocket. I guess that’s just me. In any case, if you look at the new franchise, the brand image of FGW is much improved and the newly refurbished trains are far superior to GNERs.

Then you say Wessex was down to earth, straightforward and honest. Yes, it was. And it was also terribly inefficient. It cost the taxpayer tens of millions each year in subsidy with virtually no prospect of a substantial reduction. Admittedly, this was partly because of the nature of the area it served but it was also because National Express didn’t tightly manage the franchise and was content to receive regular paychecks from the government. First Great Western never did this with its own franchise; it actively reduced, year on year, the amount of support it received from government and, eventually, became a net contributor to Treasury funds.

As to your specific points.

White doors: yes, they attract dirt but they are painted that way because of disability and accessibility laws. Legally, it is necessary to make the exits/entrances to trains distinctive so that partially impaired people can make them out easily. White, when put alongside FGW’s old livery, was the colour which stood out most. What’s more important: being inclusive and making life easier for those with disabilities or having doors which don’t get dirty but at the same time can’t be seen by those with sight problems?

Automatic apologies about delays: part of the station PA system which, to my knowledge, is used across the network and not just on FGW. From what I have heard, automated announcements are mixed, at larger stations at least, with personal announcements. Class 180s aside, announcements on the train are usually made ‘live’ by the train manager.

Lengthening journey times: partly because of the amount of engineering work on the line, much of which is an absolute necessity. Such works are conducted by Network Rail not by FGW.

Ticket barriers at Paddington: I believe, though I am prepared to be corrected, that the platforms used by the local services were not initially barriered due to health and safety reasons. However, I read recently that this is currently being resolved and that they will be barriered in due course. In any case, anything that cuts down on ticket fraud should be welcomed as it increases revenue and keeps down the cost of future ticket increases.

Wrong size tickets: airline style ticketing is a result of the national system of ticketing used. It has nothing to do with FGW. Besides, it only applies to tickets sent out by post; those ordered online and picked up at stations are the standard size.

Fitting new engines: First did not fit the engines themselves; Brush Traction, an external contractor, did the work for them. It isn’t very satisfactory that the engines did catch fire, but you can’t necessarily blame First for the problem.

Some of the points you raise in your laundry list do have absolute validity. For example, I agree about Revenue Inspectors and their often aggressive attitude. I do think, however, that you need to get to the root of the problems and not just pin the blame on First Great Western.

You mused why we see FGW through rose tinted-spectacles. The answer is that we, and I, do not. The question is: are you guilty of the opposite? Are you so biased against them that you automatically blame them for anything and everything that goes wrong.