Rail 468: Class of 2003: end of year report says ‘must do better’

In his assessment of performance in the railway school at the end of the academic year, ‘headmaster’ Christian Wolmar concludes most pupils continue to struggle, with some too keen on visiting the Treasury tuck shop.

As the scholastic year winds down with yet another spate of ‘rail chaos’ headlines, the heat generated this time by a real heatwave, it is time for the annual assessment of the performance of the various pupils in the school of railway children.

It would be great, for a change, to report on improving marks and better exam results, but unfortunately that would not reflect the reality. It has been another tough year with few highpoints and while some steady progress has been made away from the media spotlight, there have been no outstanding successes. At least, unlike in last year’s report (Rail 442) which saw the demise of a whole class as well as several pupils, there were fewer expulsions than last year to report but nevertheless some significant ones.

John Spellar, in the Government class who was not really much concerned with railway business has gone off to Northern Ireland and, at a more junior level, there was the strange episode of the departure of freight director Julia Clarke from the Strategic Rail Authority class in circumstances which are likely to be the subject of interest from m’learned friends. There was also the peremptory dismissal of Connex which means that its membership of the school will terminate in January, despite the good performance of its star pupil, the suave Olivier Brousse.

Much of the action has been in the SRA class, but we will leave that to last because of the extremely bad behaviour of one of its members and let us start with the Government class.

Its prefect, Alistair Darling, has tried, as predicted last year, very hard to keep out of the media, unlike his benighted predecessor, and has largely succeeded. But though he seems a safe pair of hands, his concentration on keeping his head down may eventually prove to be his downfall. On arriving in the Department, he missed a great opportunity to continue the changes brought about by the creation of Network Rail by creating a clearer and more sensible structure for the industry and instead has appeared to be carried along by events rather than creating his own agenda. As we see below on the report on NR, it has been a patchy year and there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the class can fulfil its early promises.

It must be said that the Government class, whose monitor is now David Rowlands, a great supporter of the current structure of the railways, is dominated by an ideological bent which is now seeking to justify the mistakes of the past. Such blinkered thinking will always lead to poor results in the end. The class should go back to basics and look at what makes a good railway work, such as in Japan or Switzerland, and then apply the lessons. The essays produced by the pupils in this class tend towards being facile and banal, failing to address the fundamental problems which seem to pop up almost daily on the railway.

It is in Network Rail class where the results of this thinking have to be dealt with. It must be said that the head prefect there, Ian McAllister, has learnt an impressive amount since being transferred from the Ford school of motoring just over a year ago. His speech to the Railway Forum was a very comprehensive piece of work which showed a grasp of the detail of the industry which has rarely been demonstrated by other recent incumbents. His number two, Ian Coucher, has also impressed, although he tends to frighten the younger boys when he stalks the corridors of the Black Tower.

Not surprisingly, NR class has had some difficulty settling down and the other classes do not entirely trust what they are doing, which has not helped the cost situation. It is, of course, the soaring costs which have been their main concern. However, there has been the interesting decision to bring three of the maintenance contracts in-house and this is likely to produce interesting results that may presage much wider changes. Certainly, privately, many in NR would like to see a fully integrated railway but such talk has been banned from the school by some of the other prefects.

The big trouble with Network Rail class is their tendency to want to go to the Treasury tuck shop the whole time (something which is also a worrying trait among several other classes, too). This is going to bring the whole school down if NR class is not careful. Already it has attracted the attention of the Regulator class whose prefect, Tom Winsor, has, in many respects, had an outstanding year, yet again. We all know that he is the brightest lad in the school but in the past this has been overshadowed by his tendency to want to show that to everyone. Now he is no longer so prone to making pompous pronouncements – although he occasionally lapses into the ‘I’m going to show you who the real expert is’ mode especially at conferences – and has become an accomplished media performer.

He has continued valiantly to try to make sense of the convoluted structure of the railways and to make it workable in the light of the new circumstances of the infrastructure owner although he has expressed strong doubts about the long term viability of having Network Rail as a not for profit company without the discipline of shareholders and showed this in his preliminary thoughts about his interim review. But there is a lot of uncertainty with Winsor due to leave the school next July and his replacement by a committee who may not have the certainty of purpose (even if, at times, this has been misdirected) of the present incumbent. Uncertain times lie ahead.

As they do for the operator class which is in danger of shrinking in numbers with the takeover of GB railways by First and the demise of Connex. The operator class is now much more under the control of the SRA pupils who spend much of their time checking precisely what they are up to. This has not gone down well with the operators but it is clearly the way of the future. There has been occasional rowdiness from some of the members, notably Moir Lockhead of First who was accused by Ceri Evans of SRA of not only jumping out of his pram, but scrabbling about looking for his lost toys. This did not please Lockhead who was on the point of calling in the m’learned friend bullies when, instead, in a brilliant coup he decided merely to take over his colleagues from GB Railways. A* star for sheer chutzpah to that boy.

There is a newcomer, too, in Serco/Ned Rail which has taken over the Merseyrail franchise, a novel arrangement which is outside the control of the SRA, a concept that may point the way to a more coherent form of franchise in areas with strong Passenger Transport Authorities.

Indeed, the big question which is still being asked by members of the operator class as well as the cannier people within the SRA is ‘what is a franchise for?’ It is an issue that is likely to dominate the next year as the SRA attempts to move away from the management contracts which now predominate towards the new model franchises it wants to create but which still remain to be defined. The operator class have not made things easy by also seeking more and more lolly from the tuck shop, and some, such as Stagecoach and Virgin, have managed to help themselves to enormous increases. Good on them, one might say, but what about the others?

Which brings us neatly to the SRA class. What a momentous year it has been for prefect Bowker and his colleagues. There has undoubtedly been lots of good work such as the West Coast strategy – though this has been upset by the boys from regulator class – the attempts to make more sensible use of capacity and, at last, a bit of progress on franchising with some successes such as obtaining new trains for the new Transpennine Express deal.

But there have also been a lot of bad points, such as the handover of large increases to several franchisees, the rows over the Julia Clarke sacking and the First Great Eastern contract and, not least, the terrible relations with many other classes, exacerbated by the abrasive attitude of the SRA’s spin doctor, Ceri Evans who has managed to annoy virtually everyone in the media and many in the industry. He has now recently embarrassed his boss with quotes which had to be retracted in a letter to The Independent. Such episodes are deeply damaging both to the SRA and the wider industry, and have apparently greatly angered the government class pupils. Perhaps now that Alistair Campbell is quitting No 10, the SRA may decided that a softer and kinder approach is what is needed in press relations.

It must be said that the prefect, Bowker, has made his very difficult job harder by not appointing a separate chief executive and by failing to understand that the key part of his job is in winning over people to his side. He will need all the friends he has got because his whole strategy, geared towards getting more money out of the Treasury, is now very unlikely to succeed given the cost of the Iraq war, the less than buoyant economy and the feeling in Whitehall that the railways are a bottomless pit. How he handles the subsequent belt-tightening will be a big test and he will need to reclaim some of the goodwill that he had when he started the job.

Overall, 2002/3 has been a very difficult year for the whole railway class and prospects are not good. The coming year will see a mega battle over money, both between the SRA and both the regulator and the Treasury. With more franchises being let, the pattern of privatisation Mark Two will emerge but whether it remains unclear whether it is any more robust than its predecessor. We live in interesting times, and all the classes face upheaval and change in the forthcoming year. And they could all do somewhat better.