Rail 388: SRA must have a destination before starting the journey

Despite the pitfalls of making predictions about the railway industry, the Strategic Rail Authority should not be renewing franchises without some vision of where the network needs to be heading in the 21st century, argues CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

Take a gasp of breath before reading the next sentence. Increasingly, I am feeling a bit sorry for those people at the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) as I realise they have an almost impossible task.

I have, in the past, been highly critical of their failure to develop a policy that looks ‘strategic’ – a criticism that is widespread across the industry and among commentators. I stand by that criticism. The SRA’s Chairman, Sir Alastair Morton, has, however, defended the organisation’s policy, arguing that he is not there to ‘command and control’ the industry. Instead, he sees the SRA’s rôle as encouraging the market to come up with ideas, assessing them and then deciding between them.

Therefore, the SRA has been busy starting to let 20-year franchises without first publishing a blueprint of how it would like to see the railways developed. We were promised a strategy document in May, but this has now been postponed with the excuse that it had to wait until after the ten-year transport investment plan was published. By then, despite repeated delays as the SRA has found it harder than expected to cross the Ts and dot the Is, it should have the first couple of refranchising deals in the bag. As a result, those contracts will have been signed without a clearly stated set of objectives for the rail industry. It is the old ‘muddlethrough’ form of British governance.

My reason for being sympathetic to the SRA over this, however, is because a document of a couple of hundred pages entitled the West Midlands Rail Network Capacity Review Study recently landed on my desk. This is the SRA’s attempt to do it the other way round. Establish the need, take a strategic approach by looking at the options and then try to meet the demand for rail services. And the document just goes to show how difficult it is to make sensible predictions and consequently ‘strategic’ decisions about the railway.

The West Midlands is a rail bottleneck with passenger demand having grown by 8%-9% annually for the past five years. At the centre is Birmingham New Street station which, according to the study, “represents the largest constraint to passenger service development in the network and is already operating close to capacity”.

The study by Halcrow looks at 13 rail corridors in the region and at ways of increasing capacity on these routes as well as options for dealing with New Street. It is strong on analysis but weak on solutions. Many of its findings are couched in vague terms and the predictions of demand are based on the aspirations of the train operators rather than on any demographic or economic factors.

It concludes: “If recent trends particularly in passenger demand continue, there will be a need to make substantial investment in a number of key corridors and central Birmingham terminal capacity over the 20-year planning horizon of this study. The date at which this capacity is needed is very sensitive to assumptions about regional economic growth…” Well, yes, I’m sure the man on the Birmingham omnibus could have worked out that one out.

The West Midlands study was a joint effort commissioned by a consortium comprising the SRA, the Government Office for the West Midlands, Railtrack, Centro and Birmingham City Council. While such studies are important and should be undertaken, they could probably be done much more quickly and cheaply if the SRA had a proper in-house team doing this sort of work all the time, rather than employing overpriced consultants.

Moreover, at the end of the day, they demonstrate that much of the game of predicting demand and trying to provide for it is rather like sticking your finger in the air to check windspeed. We really have no idea whether rail demand will grow by 20, 50 or 100% over the next decade, so trying to cater for it is a virtually impossible task. It is further complicated by the fact that if extra capacity is created, that in itself would boost rail use.

Despite my twinge of sympathy for the SRA, it is rather difficult to fathom exactly what the organisation is up to. The West Midlands study was launched in November, but in an apparently contradictory move, the SRA then announced the letting of the Central Trains franchise as part of the second round of franchises. This meant that operators were expected to bid before the results of the study were published and, indeed, even the boundaries of the franchise had been established, as there is discussion about what bits WalesRail and the new Northern joint franchise might take. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that only two companies, the incumbent, NEG, and the newcomer, Group 4 – after having had its arm twisted – have bid for the Central franchise, which is a bit of a dog anyway because of its dependence on Centro, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, which purchases and subsidises many local services.

Despite the lack of clear results from the West Midlands study, the SRA should have waited for its findings and possible further follow-up work before trying to let the Central franchise. The study concludes that decisions need to be taken quickly about where investment to boost capacity should be targeted and those decisions need to be made before the franchise is let.

I have just been reading the famous book on railway management in the immediate postwar period, Gerald Fiennes’ I Tried to Run a Railway, in which he says of British Railways’ £1.5bn 1950s modernisation programme that it was embarked upon before anyone had any clear idea of what it was trying to achieve. I do worry that the SRA is making the same mistake. Yes, the franchises need renewing, but an extra year spent in developing some concept of what is needed from the railway in the 21st century would not go amiss.

Gerald Corbett on the line

When it comes to the railways, the traditional press silly-season starts early, or perhaps it runs all year. When the performance figures were issued a couple of weeks ago, the tabloids went to town demanding the head of Gerald Corbett because he had dared to say that weather conditions affected reliability of the network.

Of course, in the year 2000, it is indeed scandalous that track circuits short out so readily when there is a bit of rain and that we still have rails that buckle when the weather gets hot quickly, but it is a bit ridiculous to blame Mr Corbett for a legacy of under-investment in the railways that stretches back through the whole of the past century.

The obsession with league tables for train services, schools and, now, even hospitals is a modern madness. The statistics are always such over-simplifications as to be meaningless. For hospitals, the death rates are clearly dependent on all kinds of factors like the local level of deprivation, the policy on dealing with terminally ill patients, the existence of support networks and so on; ultimately the numbers are pretty meaningless.

This is true, too, of the train performance tables. As I have pointed out, they are bound to go up and down over time and are subject to such a wide range of factors that there will always be bad and good periods. Mr Corbett ventured to say this, pointing out that the weather had been bad during the period, and he promptly suffered the wrath of Fleet Street.

I was approached by several radio stations wanting me to lay into Mr Corbett, and the Independent on Sunday asked me to write a piece entitled ‘Why Gerald Corbett should go’. I refused, and instead wrote a balanced piece which the editors rather tinkered about with to try to make it ‘harder’. I pointed out that actually Mr Corbett was one of the few class acts in the industry and that he had done much to improve performance and, indeed, even the company’s share price. Sure, he has made some mistakes and Railtrack still has a long way to go, but at least he is showing signs of getting to grips with the issues. Sacking him would not be the answer.

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