Friday, 18 May 2007

Foolish consistency

If Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT union, were to be granted one ‘political’ wish he would probably opt to see the railways renationalised. Ever since the rail system was ‘privatised’ Mr Crow has been of the opinion that private companies have no right to be involved in the running of the rail network. It is easy to admire someone who sticks to their beliefs but, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once so sagely noted, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And Mr Crow’s consistency on this issue is extremely foolish indeed.

Some of the points Mr Crow makes in relation to the state of the rail network are actually valid. For example, he identifies that the franchising system is a mess. Indeed it is: as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, the franchising system is at the root of many problems. However, Mr Crow’s assertion that re-nationalisation is required because of these problems is logically flawed. First and foremost, the government is in charge of the franchising system and it is fully responsible for the state of that process. To suggest that control of the railways should be handed back to the very people who are incapable of designing and running a sensible franchising process is a highly specious argument. What is actually required is a better franchising system based around principles that will enable the railways to deliver for passengers in the way that most other private companies deliver on the needs of their consumers.

Mr Crow also bemoans the fact that private train operators like First Great Western make a profit. This is an old argument which is based on nothing more than sloppy thinking and narrow-minded bias. Of course, what Mr Crow and his ilk rarely mention is the fact that the government takes far more money from franchises like Greater Western than the private companies take in profit. But even if this were not the case, Mr Crow is guilty of a double standard: it is perfectly alright for him to campaign for his own members to receive higher salaries; but it is wrong for train companies to work hard to make more profit. Where exactly does Mr Crow think salary increases come from? They can only come from companies making a profit – a company making a loss is hardly in a position to increase the salaries of its staff.

In a recent press release, Mr Crow casually commented: “when passengers are expected to endure overcrowding, service cuts and inflation-busting fares hikes and rail staff are left to pick up the pieces, First Group’s profits are simply obscene.” What he fails to mention is that overcrowding, service cuts and fare rises have very little to do with First Group’s (or First Great Western’s) profits. They are all functions of government interference in the network: the very same government that Mr Crow wants to control our trains.

The simple truth is that the call for re-nationalisation is not a call for a better railway. It is an ideological position that both ignores the real cause of the problems on today’s railways and all of the very real benefits that private involvement, in whatever its form, has brought over the past ten years.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Unfair dismissal

In my opinion, David Drew the Member of Parliament for Stroud does a dreadful job. Quite frankly, I don’t think he is fully capable of discharging the duties of an MP and, in all honesty, he should be removed from his post forthwith.

These are not really my views. Neither are they necessarily true. For all I know, Mr Drew probably does a very good job of representing his constituents. Statements of the type above are extremely easy to make and they are excellent ways, for those in positions of responsibility, to capture a piece of the limelight. Yet they are both ill considered and thoughtless.

For one thing, unless he does something completely illegal, Mr Drew has, through his election, a contract with his constituents. The majority voting for him agreed to elect him for a full term of office. You don’t have to agree with his election, of course, but the way the electoral system is structured is such that Mr Drew has an absolute right to serve for a full term, as does any Member of Parliament.

I am sure that Mr Drew would agree entirely with the above logic, which is why it is a pity he is unable to apply it to the commercial world. For those not aware, Mr Drew is the latest MP to call for First Great Western to lose its franchise. Such a manoeuvre – which could be known as 'doing a May' (after the ever disagreeable Theresa May, the first to employ the strategy) – is highly cynical.

Unless it breaches the terms of its contract, which it hasn’t, First Great Western can’t simply be ‘sacked’ from the Greater Western franchise; just as Mr Drew can’t be removed from office. Mr Drew should be well aware of this fact, and if he isn’t then he clearly isn’t qualified to make comments on this matter and should keep his views to himself. The likelihood is, of course, that Mr Drew is aware and that, despite this, he is trying to score some cheap political points to curry favour with the electorate of Stroud. This is nothing more than the politics of irresponsibility and it's one of the reasons MPs are held in such low esteem.

This is not to say that Mr Drew can’t, or shouldn’t, criticise First Great Western. With just cause, he has every right to. But he should be open and honest with the electorate and not call for things he knows are impossible.

If Mr Drew sincerely wanted a better service his time would be better spent applying pressure to the Department for Transport to ensure that First Great Western is able to keep the class 180 Adelante trains and that the Department stops its meddling in the rail system which is making life a misery for passengers.

These things may not be dramatic and exciting headline grabbers, but they represent a far more realistic and honest approach to the debate over the future of the Greater Western rail franchise.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

One variant of Dives and Lazarus

Over the next ten years the Department for Transport will receive over £1bn from First Great Western in franchise premium payments. That money can come from only once place: your pocket.

The payment is approximately the equivalent of a 15% tax on every ticket sale. If your season ticket costs £3,500 then £525 of it will go to the government; if your ticket for a weekend away costs £85 then £12.75 of it will go to the government. The question every customer of First Great Western should be asking is: what value am I getting from this charge?

So how will the money be used? No one but the Department for Transport knows; there is next to no transparency in how the government intends to use your money.

One thing it could be used for is to fund additional capacity. The Department has made much of its announcement of 1,000 additional carriages. But it has not detailed where these will be going or exactly when they will be introduced; and, it is quite possible that Greater Western will receive none of this new rolling stock. The point is that, at the moment, this is a promise with no credibility. It’s jam tomorrow.

Yet, the Department could, if it wanted, take action right now. It could set aside some of that £1bn and use it to allow First Great Western to keep its fleet of Adelante (class 180) trains. These are due to be withdrawn from service on Greater Western in December 2007 when additional capacity has been introduced through a combination of the HST fleet modernisation programme and additional HSTs entering service.

Keeping the 180s would help to reduce overcrowding even further than the planned capacity increases. It may also permit a cascading of rolling stock which would mean some of the older carriages in the former Wessex region could be replaced by newer trains – possibly class 165s from the Thames Valley routes. Having more stock to play with would also act as a buffer against disruption from train failures. All regions, from Maidenhead to Menheniot would feel the benefit.

This is a real and feasible solution to an increasingly frustrating problem and, most importantly, it is something that can be implemented by the end of this year – not at some unspecified point in the dim and distant future.

However, it is a solution that only the government can provide. But to ensure that the government gets the message it will take the commitment of passengers: each and every fare paying customer who funds the £1bn pouring into the government’s coffers needs to write and demand that their money is used to help provide a better service for the Great Western region and to keep the class 180s. They must make it clear that their suffering can no longer be ignored.


You can contact the Department for Transport by emailing the following people: (Secretary of State) (Undersecretary of State) (Director General DfT Rail Group) (Franchise Manager)

Do be polite in your communication but do not be afraid to express your views; remember Civil Servants and Ministers are there to serve the public and are funded by the taxes you pay!