Saturday, 30 June 2007

Lack of conviction

Holding a position because you genuinely believe something to be true is admirable. Advocating something simply because it will secure you a modicum of publicity is both cheap and cynical. It is into this latter category that London TravelWatch’s recent call for First Great Western to lose its franchise falls.

In actuality, London TravelWatch stopped short of recommending that First Great Western be stripped of its franchise. That would have been too definitive and too decisive a statement. Rather, in a carefully worded comment, it said: “we believe now is possibly the time for the government to consider firm action on the future of the franchise.” Such ambiguity is cowardly. It is also very deliberate: it allows the media and public to interpret the statement as being tough with First Great Western but is sufficiently vague as to absolve London TravelWatch from the responsibility of actually having said anything definite at all.

In addition to saying very little, it is clear that London TravelWatch has no opinion of its own regarding Greater Western. It makes no recommendation as to what it believes the future of the franchise should be, but merely passes the buck to the government who it claims should ‘possibly’ (that’s a maybe!) look into the matter. Herein is a further problem. While London TravelWatch is keen to point to First Great Western’s failures, it does very little to address any government failings - many of which are central to the problems with today's railways.

Despite what London TravelWatch say, or don’t quite say, the franchise will not be removed from First Great Western. For a start, the terms of the agreement have not been broken. For another, the situation on the ground is improving. Even the irascible MP for Maidenhead, Theresa May, recognised this when she told the Maidenhead Advertiser that she was “keen to give them [FGW] another chance first before bringing the axe down.” The bottom line is that from a purely practical point of view, removing the franchise now would bring nothing but disruption and uncertainly and would do virtually nothing for passengers – the very passengers that LTW claims to represent.

London TravelWatch has generated some good publicity from its vapid press release. Unfortunately, it has come at the very expense of an attribute desperately needed by organisations of its kind: credibility. A Pyrrhic victory indeed.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

All change

“That's it. The end.” Tony Blair’s final words to the House of Commons yesterday may well have been true for his premiership, but for the government, and indeed the rest of the country, life continues to go on as normal. No one will be more acutely aware of this than Gordon Brown, who has, this morning, announced his new Cabinet.

Among the many changes, the transport brief has passed from the less than competent hands of Douglas Alexander to the, well, less than competent hands of Ruth Kelly. While it is unfair to judge Ms Kelly in advance of her tenure at transport, from her past performance as Secretary of State for Communities it is safe to say she is not renowned for her capability. The farcical introduction, then withdrawal then re-introduction of Home Information Packs (HIPs) is a testament to this fact. Ms Kelly presided over, but never quite accepted responsibility for, this dismal mess of a policy.

It is an error she must not repeat at the DfT, and especially not with the railways. The railways need three main things from politicians – vision, stability and honesty – and these must be Ms Kelly’s immediate priorities.

The vision part has nothing to do with spin. It is, in fact, a highly practical task of deciding how best our railways should be organised to deliver for the consumer and all of the other various industry stakeholders. Such a task is not easy, but it is desperately needed. A fundamental reappraisal of how the railways are structured and run is the one real change that would give, over the longer term, a much more responsive and successful railway network. As the holders of much of the power on the railways, such a reappraisal can only come from politicians and it is here than Ms Kelly must take the lead.

The stability part of the equation is less to do with long term strategic plans and more about leaving private train operating companies like First Great Western alone so that they can get on with delivering their franchise commitments. Under Douglas Alexander, the DfT not only set the terms of franchises agreements but also engaged itself in day-to-day activities such as setting timetables. The department has no business being involved in such tasks and is, in any case, notoriously bad at undertaking them. Ms Kelly must change this culture of micro-management at the DfT.

Honesty is an obvious one. The Department for Transport is a great stretcher of the truth: it makes decisions that cause problems on the railway network and then lets others, like First Great Western, take the blame while pretending it has nothing to do with situation on the ground. Not only is that dishonest, but it is unacceptable. Ms Kelly must ensure that the Department is transparent in its aims and objectives and that it takes full responsibility for its own actions. This is clearly something that Ms Kelly found difficult as Communities Secretary, but at Transport she has an ideal opportunity to make up for her past mistakes.

Standing outside Number Ten yesterday, Gordon Brown said, “…change cannot be met by the old politics.” Nowhere is this truer than at the Department for Transport: a better railway requires a new approach. Whether Ruth Kelly is the best person to deliver it is a question only time can answer.