Rail 424: SRA and ATOC lack authority over London transit body idea

By opposing the concept of a publicly accountable transit authority for London, the SRA is again demonstrating its lack of political savvy, contends CHRISTIAN WOLMAR, who also berates the increasing complexity of the modern railway structure.

At the end of November, I chaired a conference on rail in London at which the concept of a transit authority for the capital was formally launched by Transport for London, the Mayor’s transport arm. Given that everything in the railways is up in the air – so to speak – it was a particularly apposite time for such an initiative.

The timing, however, was not deliberate. TfL had been working on the idea long before the collapse of Railtrack had thrown all the balls in the air. Ian Brown, a well-respected and imaginative railwayman who in previous incarnations has run both BR’s freight services and the Docklands Light Railway, was appointed to the oddly-named post of managing director of TfL’s rail services, partly to work up the idea of a transit authority.

The scope of the proposed organisation has not been precisely determined but its key role would be to act as the franchising authority for London suburban services. This would enable them to be better integrated with the Underground, and TfL would also determine where improvements were needed and therefore target money available for investment. It could choose, for example, to put a lot of money into developing an orbital route, and increase frequencies on well-used routes.

There would, too, be an extra advantage of having such a body. It would establish a much-needed measure of democratic accountability in the railway system. As Brown pointed out at the conference, if trains keep on getting cancelled on a particular line, its users can complain to the Mayor or his representatives. That is why the Passenger Transport Executives put pressure on train operating companies whose service deteriorates. The executives are overseen by Passenger Transport Authorities whose membership is dominated by elected councillors who know that a bad train service can be a vote-loser.

The idea has wider resonance. The Labour Party is looking at ways of devolving powers to the Regional Development Authorities which it is creating around the country, and one area which clearly needs a focus that encompasses regional-level objectives is transport. A Government White Paper on regionalisation due early in the New Year is expected to suggest this, possibly even giving a role to regional authorities in franchising and funding local services. It is a model widely used in Europe.

Yet what was the attitude of the SRA and ATOC to the idea of a transit authority being put forward by TfL? You’ve guessed it. They poured a heap of cold sick on the notion, saying it was merely the Mayor and his Transport Commissioner, Bob Kiley, trying to expand their empire.

At the conference Mike Grant, chief executive of the SRA, went on about deliverability, not exactly the SRA’s strongpoint given that it has failed to produce a strategic plan or sign off any franchise deals in its 30-month life. He made it quite clear he wanted nothing to do with the notion of a transit authority for London. The railways provided regional and national services, and having a London authority would confuse the situation, he argued. However, what exactly has the SRA done for London? Would it, for example, be worth considering having a London-wide franchise covering what used to be Network SouthEast, widely recognised as one of the great successes of the late days of BR.

George Muir, the director general of ATOC, was equally sceptical, saying that it was the kind of turf war which the industry did not need. That strikes me as the sort of narrow-minded view which has dogged the railways ever since fragmentation.

Surely, given that the SRA was not exactly on the shortlist for the ‘railway organisation of the year’ award, this seems to be an unnecessarily narrow-minded approach. Anything which offers greater accountability for rail passengers should be considered. One of the problems with the SRA is that it does not have a strong regional structure, unlike the Highways Agency which is highly devolved and therefore well able to address local concerns. Surely this is one for Richard Bowker’s desk now that he has started work as chairman of the SRA, who should have the wit to treat the issue seriously.

This little episode also demonstrates the lack of political astuteness which has dogged the SRA in its short life. If involving the regional assemblies is part of Labour’s agenda, then it would be smart to give the idea proper consideration.

However, there is an added subtle political dimension which may kill off the idea at birth. Given that the Labour renegade Ken Livingstone is in charge of London, and the Government deliberated created the mayoralty and the Greater London Authority as somewhat toothless organisations, ministers may well end up strengthening regional powers outside the capital without doing so in London. But they will look pretty foolish doing so.

How many companies does it take to run a railway?

The way that the railway gets ever more complicated, rather than simpler, even half a decade after the start of rail privatisation, never ceases to amaze me. Take the Golden Valley from Swindon to Gloucester.

In the reorganisation of the timetable in preparation for the creation of the Wessex franchise – one of Sir Alastair Morton’s less coherent ideas and really a by-product of hiving off WalesRail from Wales and West – services are no longer run by W&W. But nor are they operated by Wessex as the two other companies which used to run along the line, Virgin and First Great Western, operate the trains. But ‘Wessex’ now runs the stations and, indeed, a little notice at Stroud station says that cheques for ticket purchases ought to be made out to Wessex Trains Ltd. So tickets are sold by clerks who have no links with the companies providing the service. Is this unique?

Incidentally, while travelling to Stroud on a Saturday morning, the train from Swindon was replaced by a bus which, of course, took nearly an hour longer. I had assumed this was because the line was closed and therefore I was surprised to see a First Great Western train pulling into Kemble station when the bus stopped there. In fact, the possession for Railtrack to carry out maintenance had been cancelled – a frequent event and again a result of the fragmentation which forces Railtrack to organise its possessions far too early – but Virgin had been unable to reinstate its services as the line from Birmingham to Gloucester was blocked. But could it not run local services with some of the spare ‘158s’ lying around? No, because of some demarcation dispute with the drivers. So a bus it was, with the driver asking passengers for the way to Stroud station.

And just another couple of gripes while I am in the mood. Why is it that when trains are delayed, the staff simply give up asking for tickets? I have been on two severely delayed trains in the past month – a GNER service from London to York on a Sunday held up because of overhead line problems, and the return from Stroud rerouted via Westbury because of a ‘fatality’ on the line between Swindon and Didcot – both times ticket collection was scrapped.

The contrast between the way the two companies handled the problem could not have been greater. Apart from a couple of announcements about the retimings, the First Great Western crew were not to be seen, even though people around me wanted information about connections. In contrast, the GNER staff were going up and down the carriages advising people about onward journeys and handing out complaints forms. FGW did not even mention that passengers could claim. As I have mentioned before, this is a matter for much tighter regulation by the SRA. FGW, by the way, gave away free water and mini-pretzels but did not announce this, so only a lucky few benefited.

Railtrack incompetence inadvertently exposed

It has always been a source of mystery to commentators like me exactly what happens to all the extra money going into the industry and, in particular, how the costs of the West Coast Main Line project can, according to some suggestions, be approaching a staggering £10bn. The subsidy is at least double compared with the days of BR, and yet not only is there so little to show for that extra billion or two, but that extra dosh was not enough to prevent Railtrack from joining BR and all its predecessors in that eternal resting place for deceased railway companies.

A little insight into this mystery was revealed quite by chance in a Sunday Mirror exposé in November which was actually about a young buyer for Balfour Beatty who had a useful sideline as a drug dealer and, most worryingly, in alerting his clients, mostly track workers, about when what he called ‘piss tests’ were likely to be undertaken by managers.

While it was a matter of some concern – but not quite as alarming as the Sunday Mirror suggested – for the safety of the railway, there was a much more interesting insight given by the young man who proved to be surprisingly articulate about the way the railways were managed. The hapless fellow, Lee Berger- Walden, who was a buyer on part of the WCML project, told the reporters how under the administrators things were much tighter: “On the job now, I have to get three quotes for everything. On earlier jobs, because we made so much money, I just went ahead and bought it” (my italics).

And Railtrack protests that it was hard done by!

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