Rail 464: Bowker’s ‘Mission: Impossible’ – solving the capacity conundrum

SRA Chairman Richard Bowker is in an impossible position, at the mercy of forces beyond his control, argues CHRISTIAN WOLMAR – typified by his helplessness in the face of the network’s capacity problems.

The impossibility of being Richard Bowker was highlighted by the trio of announcements that the Strategic Rail Authority made on June 16. This is the first bunch of what promises to be a series of bad news items about the railways over the coming months and it is difficult not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Bowker, although that feeling is not enhanced by the SRA’s pathetic attempts at press management which always rebound with the force of a pinball marble.

It was a mistake for the SRA to make the three announcements – the three-monthly ‘On Track’ performance figures, the preliminary report of the Network Utilisation Strategy (NUS – the document is, oddly, called Capacity Utilisation Plan; Network Utilisation Strategy) and the results of the consultation on the West Coast Modernisation – on the same day. It was a blatant attempt to get as much bad news out of the way as possible, but, in fact, with better presentation, each of these could have been sold more positively.

Instead, the headline in the London Evening Standard that day said it all: ‘Rail fares up, services cut’. In his wisdom, Alistair Darling, the supposedly ‘safe hands’ Transport Secretary, had decided to make a bad day worse by suggesting that rail fares were too low and that they may have to go up by 4% next year, although it was unclear whether that included inflation or not.

(As an aside which is impossible not to mention, was it really a good idea to give the overworked Darling an extra job as Secretary of State for Scotland which means he will have to answer questions on that country once a month in Parliament? Certainly it seems Darling will not be spending any extra time with his family as he takes on his additional job, but, more importantly, the appointment sends out all the wrong messages, and politics is largely a matter of perception.)

By combining these four somewhat disparate rail stories, the issue went further up the news agenda than it would have done otherwise. So, far from burying the bad news, the effect was to highlight it. Thus The Independent really went to town on the story with a front-page splash under the banner ‘Derailed: How transport has become Labour’s most spectacular failure’.

It was difficult to quibble with the copy which highlighted all the ways in which Labour’s rail policy has gone wrong: 19.5% of trains were still late; all the £33 billion of taxpayers’ money earmarked for rail in the Ten Year Plan has been allocated with no new major investment proposals; the target to boost passenger numbers seems to have been reined back; and there is now, no longer, any mention of the private sector’s expected £34bn contribution towards rail investment in the plan. Other newspapers covered the story in much the same vein and the issue was top of the news at lunchtime and still running strongly in the evening.

Bowker’s job is therefore an impossible one. Superficially, he is at the centre of the railway structure, pulling the levers on franchises, Network Rail, investment, capacity, the West Coast and much more. But really he is more non-executive than executive when it comes down to it, at the mercy of forces which he is really unable to control.

His budget, for example, was cut by more than £300 million for this year, when any rational assessment by the Government of the problems the SRA faced as the franchises ran out suggested that it would need more money rather than less. Therefore, franchise reletting is virtually in a state of paralysis. The bids coming in for franchises like TransPennine are proving to be much more expensive than the budget allows, as could be expected given that so many operators had effectively gone bust over the past two years as subsidy declined. As a result, Bowker is faced with the prospect of either making cuts to services or trying to muddle through with little prospect of any help from the Treasury.

The SRA chairman’s inability to tackle the strategic issues involved is demonstrated by a glance at the NUS preliminary document. It clearly suggests there are too many trains whizzing around the network for not much purpose. While the big passenger number increases over the past few years have been concentrated on the London commuter network, there are pretty much the same number of trains simply because there is not the additional capacity available. However, on the inter-city network, the number of trains has gone up by 65% since 1997/98 while passengers have increased by barely 10%.

There are going to be a series of route studies, starting with the Midland Main Line, to assess what to do about capacity, but the answer is clear: the number of trains needs to be cut back. Indeed, the document says as much but Bowker was unable to admit that for fear of provoking yet worse publicity. The SRA has apparently discovered a new law of railway timetabling which is that once usage of a particular line reaches 75% of capacity, then any additional trains are likely to cause more delay than the time saved by the passengers using those extra services. (One answer, of course, might be to increase the capacity through such simple measures as putting in an extra signal or two, but the analysis does not seem to tackle that issue.)

However, Bowker is stuck with a whole load of franchises which allow operators to run as many trains as they want, and indeed, on some, as with Midland Main Line, the SRA has quite recently let contracts which specifically increase the number of services. So if Bowker now wants to force the operators to cut back services, he will have to pay the them compensation. And, as mentioned above, we all know that the SRA has no spare cash swilling about in its coffers.

Bowker’s difficulties have been compounded by the SRA’s apparent inability to make decisions and its growing unpopularity within the rail industry. Rather than working with people, there is a growing feeling among many leading rail companies – not just First group which is now taking the SRA to court – that the SRA is a heavy handed policeman rather than a partner in a difficult enterprise.

Yet Bowker needs friends. The extent of his troubles on franchising were demonstrated by the fact he let slip that the West Coast franchise is set to remain on a monthly management contract at least until the end of the year. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole process seems to be in a state of paralysis which will be impossible to escape from unless the Treasury loosens the purse strings. While on the subject of the West Coast, the cost has been confirmed as £9.9bn which seems rather like the price of shoes or books – an unconvincing attempt to make it seem cheaper than it really is, and which seems to be successful sometimes as an innumerate BBC reported quoted the price as £9bn.

The daft thing about the simultaneous release of these stories is that the whole media outburst is set to be repeated again in the next few weeks when the much-trailed fare rises are finally announced. Perhaps Darling is being really clever by lowering expectations and he will announce that they will go up only in line with inflation. But given that he suggested on the Today programme that the fares are currently too cheap, this is highly unlikely. So watch this space for more bad news.

A bit of good news – for a change

Given the general gloom, it’s worth pointing out a bit of good news, albeit much of it consisting of one company patching up other people’s cock-ups.

When QPR reached the second division play-off finals, a lot of fans booked on the noon train from Paddington to Cardiff, having been informed that the journey time was the usual two hours which was fine for a 3pm kick-off. In fact, there were engineering works which meant that the train would only get there ten minutes before 3pm, barely enough time to get to the ground on time.

So, when First spotted this, just four days before the match, it put on another train and contacted all the supporters to reallocate them to the new 1050. That shows the kind of flexibility which is rarely exhibited in the industry these days, and I would love to have eavesdropped on the conversation between First and Network Rail when trying to organise the extra train path.

Then, on the train, I came across a fellow who said he had bought tickets off thetrainline.com and the price had got quite high because there was a lot of demand for those times. Yet thetrainline could not provide reserved seats for that service even though he would not be allowed on the train without them. So he was in the bizarre position of forking out a lot of money for a train he could not get on because it was in high demand.

When he complained to First, however, it sent him free first class upgrades and apologised for the cock-up, but said there was nothing it could do about this anomaly. Perhaps that’s an issue which needs to be addressed with a bit of involvement from the Association of Train Operating Companies?

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