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.


Anonymous said...

I wonder whether you actually travel on FGW's trains? If you did I would be most surprised if you had seen any improvement since January. Things are as bad as ever: the latest L&TV figures are appalling.

CJ Harrison said...


I do travel on First Great Western’s trains. I find the service better now than it was immediately after the December timetable was introduced. That doesn’t mean to say I find it perfect, I don’t and there are still many improvements that need to be made. Everyone, including First Great Western, recognises that.

What you have to ask though is whether stripping FGW of the franchise would improve things. The broad answer is no because whoever took over would find themselves in exactly the same position regarding infrastructure, rolling stock and operational issues. The only thing removing the franchise from its incumbent would do is to satisfy some emotional urges to ‘punish’ FGW – but then what are people going to do when the new operator doesn’t deliver?

If there was a magic wand that could be waved to solve all the problems, I am sure someone would have waved it by now. Unfortunately, the only thing that will improve the situation on the ground is time and effort. I believe that the effort is going in, so it’s a matter of waiting for the improvements to filter through.

One thing that is notable for the Thames Valley is that the proposed timetable for December this year has some significant improvements. However, it still needs to be approved by Network Rail. This is, in my view, most unsatisfactory: Network Rail should not have the final say – it never has to answer to the travelling public and can afford to be unresponsive. We will have to wait until later this year to see what the outcome will be.

Anonymous said...

Who ever runs the Great Western franchise will have problems, but I am sure many other companies would have handled them better.

For example

- HS Train updgrages - safety of glass doors and carriage dividors not addressed.
- HS Train updgrades - lack of disable toilets.
- Poor crises management when tunnels or lines are closed.

FGW has the WORST performace record in the industry for several years. For this reason alone they should have not been awarded the new Fracnhise and should have it removed. This would act as a warning to other Franchise Rail compnaies that sloppy management wil not be accepted.

Anonymous said...

How bad would it need to get before FGW was in breach of its franchise?

I know that CJH thinks that FGW are trying hard that things are improving and that we should let them get on with their job and other people would like to see FGW kicked out tomorrow, but that is not my question. Individual opinions on whether FGW OUGHT to loose the franchise or not are not that interesting.

I assume (perhaps naively) that the franchise agreement contains objective standards that First need to meet in order to keep running trains. I'd be interested to know what they are and how they square with First's actual performance.

My own view is that First's performance is not very good (this is backed up by various performance statistics and league tables that one sees). I therefore assume that one of the following apply 1) they are in breach and could be thrown out but that this is unlikely to happen because DfT wants to avoid the embarassment of reletting the franchise (possibly with terms that are less finacially attractive to them), or 2) they are not in breach which raises the question of should the DfT be slated for setting such lax conditions.

I assume that the franchise terms are now public? If not that in itself is a disgrace.

Lee Fletcher said...

The Franchise Agreement was online , but is not available at present. A copy can be obtained by e - mailing

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