Thursday, 12 April 2007

Who does what?

Passengers travelling to and from Swansea are, rightfully, outraged. Engineering work which was supposed to be completed after the Easter break is taking an extra week and, as a result, there are no services either in to or out of Swansea. Massive disruption has ensued.

Meanwhile, Mr Pedersen of Maidenhead is annoyed with what he sees as ‘yet another’ points failure which has caused him difficulties. In protest he has written a strongly worded letter to the Maidenhead Advertiser. In his letter he asks a pertinent question: so are Network Rail or FGW to blame for the failure to properly repair this set of points outside Maidenhead?

The answer to his question is that Network Rail is fully responsible for the maintenance of all network infrastructure: they look after signals, tracks, points and all other ‘bits’ the trains run on. They also manage all engineering and renewal work – which means that they, and they alone, are responsible for the current problems in Wales.

First Great Western has no responsibility for these areas: it is completely at the mercy of Network Rail. That, for better or for worse, is the system we currently have. It is a much misunderstood system but let’s be clear on one point: anyone who blames FGW for infrastructure problems is either ignorant of the facts or is simply evading the truth.


Billyo said...

This is true, but complaints must be aimed at FGW in order to get compensation for delays.

As far as I am aware there is no remuneration policy with regards to National Rail. We have to complain to FGW who then, presumably, pass the bill onto Network Rail.

Again, you might argue that the system needs changing, but as it stands, customers have no choice but to vent their frustration at the ToC.

However I believe this system is correct, and should not be changed. Aportioning of blame, and who should foot the bill should be done behind-the scenes. It should not be the customer's responsibility to decide who's to blame. It's bad enough that if you make a journey that involves two ToC's it's often difficult to make a complaint.

CJ Harrison said...

I completely agree with you. The last thing anyone should do is to make life more difficult for travellers. It is right that passengers who have faced disruption because of Network Rail address their complaints to, and seek compensation from, First Great Western. Indeed, from a legal point of view it is necessary that they do this as their contract is technically with FGW and not with Network Rail.

As you said, FGW can then claim back compensation from Network Rail. There is, in fact, a team of people (based in Swindon, I believe) who deal with delay attribution – i.e. they determine where responsibility for every delay minute lies. Compensation, fines, etc. are then calculated from this. Are these people necessary? Under the current system, yes. Could they be doing something more productive? Under a different system, they most certainly could!

The essence of my argument is this:

First, it is easy for people to blame First Great Western – i.e. believe that they are responsible – for delays caused by Network Rail. Last week, I lost count of the number of times I heard people saying how inefficient and unreliable FGW were because of the disruption in Wales. That’s just not so. What are FGW supposed to do when the lines are closed and six of their trains are trapped in Swansea? There is nothing they could do.

Second, partly because of the above, the current system is not good because it lacks transparency. As far as the public are concerned, there is not clear responsibility. The system is also bureaucratic because there is too much concern with blame attribution: resource that could be better used elsewhere.

Third, a better system would be vertical integration where the tracks and train were run by the same organization. It would make for a far more efficient and more effective railway with much greater transparency and accountability.

Billyo said...

A system where tracks and trains are run by the same company would have to be re-nationalization surely?

Firstly in a great deal of places more than one ToC runs trains on the same track. Who would maintain the track? If the predominant user looked after the track there would still be inevitable problems at the joins between areas. I would envisage a situation where an accident would occur at eactly that point and the ToCs would be pointing fingers at each other and no-one would be held accountable.

CJ Harrison said...

Why would it have to be re-nationalisation?

There are many options for brining about vertical integration: the train company could own the infrastructure outright; it could lease it as part of the franchise agreement; or, it could neither own nor lease it but exert a much tighter degree of control over the operation. All of these things are feasible – admittedly some are more complex than others – and none involve re-nationalisation.

It makes sense for the predominant user in each region to ‘control’ the infrastructure. Yes, other users may need access, but this is something that can easily be arranged by mutual agreement and, if necessary, by the regulation and control of an independent regulator or arbitrator.

I do not accept the point about ‘joins between areas’. How many accidents have been caused by trains passing over the ‘joins’ between the countries of Europe? The point is that there needs to be very clear lines of responsibility and demarcation so it’s perfectly transparent as to who is accountable for what.

Moreover, it is within no operator’s interest to neglect infrastructure so that accidents happen. Aside from the human factor – no one wants the horror of an accident – accidents are disruptive and extremely costly. They have a negative impact on revenues and on brand equity.

All of that said, vertical integration is quite some way down the batting order. It is not a priority as it is not the most damaging aspect of the current system. Furthermore, there are a number of other changes that would need to be implemented before integration could be successfully implemented.