Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Lies, damn lies and newspaper stories

This morning’s Times story about overcrowding on First Great Western’s trains will resonate with many passengers. Capacity problems are one of the most significant issues on the rail network and one of the things that angers travellers the most. Unfortunately, despite its relevance the story provides, at best, a partial picture and, at worst, is downright misleading.

The essence of the story comes from a Freedom of Information release made by the Department of Transport in which they detail the most overcrowded rail services in 2006. The most overcrowded service is, apparently, the 06.35 First Great Western train from Bedwyn to London Paddington. The word apparently is important: during the whole of 2006 there was no 06.35 from Bedwyn – indeed, that service has not run since the days of Thames Trains. It is likely that the Department for Transport means the 06.42 from Bedwyn, but there is no way to be certain. If the DfT are incapable of even recording the times of the trains correctly, it says very little for the accuracy of their passenger count figures. Their numbers are, of course, at odds with other overcrowding statistics – although there is no way of actually assessing their validity because, rather carelessly, the Department has not revealed its methodological or sampling details.

The Times cannot be blamed for this error; that is down to the usual incompetence at the Department for Transport. However, where the Times is culpable is in making a spurious link between the overcrowded Bedwyn service and the cutting of stock on the Great Western network. It is true that the new franchise saw stock cuts, and those cuts, as the article identifies, were expressly agreed with the government. However, the cuts were made to the ex-Wessex fleet not to the local fleet which runs the services to and from Bedwyn. Moreover, the cuts were made as part of the December 2006 timetable change and so will have had no impact whatsoever on the published 2006 overcrowding figures. In actuality, the December 2006 timetable change introduced greater capacity between Bedwyn and Paddington and so, if anything, will have helped to ease overcrowding.

None of this is to say that stock cuts won’t cause, or aren’t causing, problems; they may well be. The thrust of the article is accurate inasmuch as it identifies a growing railway needs greater levels of capacity to cope with demand; the reasons why supply isn’t matching that demand is discussed elsewhere on this blog. One thing First Great Western are doing, however, is to remodel their high speed trains to introduce greater capacity, yet this is the very thing the Times article takes a swipe at. The Times needs to make up its mind: either it wants increased capacity, or it doesn’t. If it does want an increase there has to be a realisation that some tables on HSTs have to be sacrificed to make more space for seating – and that sacrifice is the equivalent of over 3 million additional seats on the FGW network across a year.

If we are to build a better railway for the future, one thing that is critically needed is an informed debate about the future of the rail network. Newspapers can play an important part in that debate – but only if they steer clear of sensationalist headlines and report an accurate and balanced picture of the true state of play. By that standard, today’s Times article falls well short of the mark.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

The franchising farce

The nature of the franchising system is probably the primary barrier to the growth of the rail network. The central issue with franchises is the short time periods for which they are granted: the majority of franchises are given to Train Operating Companies for periods of 7 to 10 years, with the final years usually being conditional on meeting certain performance criteria.

Clearly, no company can make significant levels of capital investment over such period as there is an insufficient window of time in which they can generate a realistic return. The result is that most TOCs can only commit to relatively minor levels of capital expenditure. This stifles investment in the rail network and means that government is still the only real investment vehicle for most major capital projects.

This situation is exacerbated by the long gestation period for many development initiatives. For a ten year franchise, it is not unrealistic that the development of new trains, stations or track – even were these things to be under the purview of Train Operating Companies – could take up at least half, if not more, of the franchise period. This is an unattractive option which, again, stifles development.

As well as stifling investment, the franchise system also means that the network is run on a short term basis. Franchisees have little concern for what happens after their period of operation is over because there is no guarantee that they will win the next franchise agreement. While this approach is understandable, it means there is virtually no incentive for long term strategic planning and necessary structural adjustments are simply overlooked.

The franchising system, as currently configured, is also hugely wasteful. Companies spend millions and millions putting together franchise bids and devote significant management time and attention to the activity with only the winner of the franchise race having any chance of recouping this expenditure. The government itself also faces significant expenditure in assessing the various bids and managing the franchising system. While such efforts are, to a degree, necessary in any tendering process, the fact that the franchises come up for renewal so regularly makes the system excessively expensive. This is money that could, and probably should, be invested in the rail network.

Changing the franchising system is not an overnight task, but until and unless it is addressed the rail system will not deliver as much as it should for all of its stakeholders. As such, when it comes to railway policy, it is an issue that should be high on the agenda of the new Secretary of State.

Monday, 2 July 2007

A helping hand

One thing my blog really isn’t, is a collection of anecdotal tales of my travels around the First Great Western network. This is quite deliberate: when I started writing I wanted to focus on some of the higher level strategic issues facing the railways and in particular the Greater Western franchise, rather than deal with the minutiae of my personal travel experiences.

Tonight however, I will make an exception to my rule.

This evening lightning struck some track side equipment in the Southall area. Chaos ensued as some of the lines between Reading and Paddington were closed and trains were cancelled, delayed and everything was generally disrupted. I, along with countless other travellers, faced the grim prospect of trying to wend my weary way home.

Fortunately, I managed to make it to Reading fairly easily by catching the first HST I could find that was leaving Paddington. I then proceeded to wait on a rather crowded, and particularly dull, Platform 4 at Reading Station. At around 20.08 a newly refurbished HST heading for Bristol Temple Meads pulled into the station. I looked through the windows to be greeted by the sight of Alison Forster, the Managing Director of First Great Western, wheeling a catering trolley through the train, chatting to passengers.

At a time of crisis, Ms Forster hadn’t shied away from the front line: she was there with her sleeves rolled up helping people and trying to make whatever difference she could. She deserves credit for efforts. Ms Forster probably wouldn’t think she was doing anything exceptional, she’d just see it as part of her job and of her responsibility. And maybe it is – but what a stark comparison to the simpering bureaucrats at the Department for Transport who, despite making passengers' lives a misery, hide in the shadows of their Ministry in Whitehall and would never dream of putting themselves in the line of fire and dealing with everyday travellers.

It is, of course, very easy to criticise First Great Western for problems and for people to be, maybe unjustifiably, scathing about its management, but one accusation that simply isn’t true is that Ms Forster and her team don’t care. I think they do. As I saw in Ms Forster’s actions this evening, I think they care very much indeed.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Notwork Snail

A few months ago, rumours abounded that Network Rail wanted to play a greater role in the running of the rail network. Suggestions were made, and subsequently denied, that the company would like to take control of non-London stations, possibly act as a rolling stock company and even take over the jobs of train operating companies.

In the words of Margaret Thatcher: no, no, no!

If Network Rail were allowed to extend its powers in this way the result would be re-nationalisation by the back door. It would mean the nation’s rail services were put into the hands of what is essentially a government organisation that is neither particularly efficient nor particularly responsive to customer needs. Network Rail’s own record testifies to both these facts.

Private train operating companies have, over time, reduced the amount of subsidy they need to run their operations; indeed, many now pay money back to the government. First Great Western is a good case in point: back in 1996/7, Greater Western as a whole received a subsidy of over £190m to run trains, over the next ten years First Group will pay the government over £1bn. Such a transformation has only been possible by making the operation significantly more efficient and by growing revenues. Contrast this to Network Rail which receives an annual subsidy of more than £5bn, over three times what its predecessor – the equally ineffective Railtrack – received, and has its £18bn of debts guaranteed by the taxpayer.

The results of this lucrative position have not been particularly stunning. Last year the overall amount of delays attributed to train operation companies fell sharply; those attributed to Network Rail increased. Indeed, the train operators are now so frustrated with what they see as Network Rail’s poor performance that the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) has tabled a resolution at Network Rail’s AGM later this month to the effect that operators “are concerned that in the fundamental matter of punctuality the delays for which the company is responsible are substantially higher than in 1999/2000”.

While Network Rail is clearly unable to discharge its present responsibilities either efficiently or effectively the idea that it should be given control of extra areas of the rail network is little more than ludicrous.

There is a great deal of truth in the argument that the separation of track and train, brought about under the Conservative’s ‘privatisation’ programme, was a fundamental policy error. It is obvious that without track and other fixed infrastructure trains cannot run, and without trains there is no need for any infrastructure. The point is that the two are an integrated whole; they go hand in glove. As such, a successful railway operation relies on the two being closely integrated and aligned. Separation hampers this.

The way to remedy this is not by giving more power to Network Rail – one of the more inefficient parts of the complex rail system. The proper way to solve the problem of a lack of vertical integration is to give train operating companies (TOCs) far more control over their essential infrastructure. A TOC 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 this said, the integration of track and train has to be a longer term objective. It should not be the first, or the overriding objective of future rail policy. Indeed, its successful implementation relies on other changes being made to the structure of the rail system: for example, it would be imprudent to give TOCs control over infrastructure without first lengthening the terms of their franchises.

The bottom line, however, is clear. You do not make the railway network better by giving control to that part of it which is the least customer responsive, the least financially efficient and the most subject to political interference. That’s not a plan for a better future, it’s a recipe for disaster.