Rail 494: Class of 2004 is improving – but still must try harder

In his annual report on the performance of pupils in the railway school, headmaster CHRISTIAN WOLMAR reflects on a year in which Network Rail class has been the teacher’s pet while SRA and HSE classes are to be summarily expelled.

With summer in full swing, and rails set to buckle under the heat or weight of holidaymakers on packed trains, it’s report time on performance of the railway school. And as I seem to say every time, what a momentous year it has been. It has been incredibly busy, with lots of turnover of pupils. The wholesale expulsions of classes – this time the Strategic Rail Authority and theHealth& Safety Executive – suggest much uncertainty about the future of the whole school.

Let’s start with the SRA class. How did it come to this? Last year’s report warned relations withWhitehall would have to improve, following some behind-the-scenes rows. But the lesson was not learnt and the class blundered on with the arrogance that can only come from a fundamental lack of understanding of the school rules. So the SRA prepared a strategic plan that had to be junked on orders from ministers. The plan would, according toWhitehall sources, have bankrupted theDepartment for Transport.Clever move, guys – so a big F in all the key subjects: politics, economics,maths and English.

Indeed, a special prizemust go to the SRA’s class joker, who regaled all his fellow pupils with a series of jolly quotes like describing the role of the Regulator, TomWinsor, as that of ‘a supermarket price-checker’. Very amusing, young Evans, C, but constant attentionseeking and loudmouth comments onmatters clearly outside the responsibility of your class, did much damage. It wasn’t big and it definitely wasn’t clever – 500 lines, please – “Imust not show off and shoot my mouth off.”

The head boy of SRA class, Richard Bowker, must take some responsibility for its demise. His inability to work with other classes, particular the Regulator andWhitehall, as well as his failure to learn from early mistakes, meant he led his class to its downfall. However, he did, towards the end, seem to understand that a more emollient attitude was needed but the effort, as with many pupils in the railway school, was too little, too late. So farewell, SRA, and goodbye, too, Tom Winsor and the Office of the Rail Regulator, which has become the Office of Rail Regulation.

The regulator class was so dominated by Winsor that it is difficult to assess what is going to happen now that there is new prefect, Chris Bolt, a fellow ofmany parts. Winsor excelled himself in self-publicity in the last few months in the job, earning a grade A for successfully becoming a media tart. He seemed to be everywhere giving his trenchant views about the rail review (unnecessary), the SRA (unnecessary), comment in the media (unnecessary) and his replacement by seven people (six of whom are clearly unnecessary because “it is nice to know I amdoing the job of seven people”). Winsor was right, and everyone else was wrong.He will be missed.

The busiest has been the Department for Transport class – and the pupils are going to get even busier with all that work from the SRA coming to them. The class made a very good start by announcing the review in January. It looked like it was going to be a very exciting project, with plenty of new thinking and radical ideas. But, inevitably, all the killjoys from the other classes got involved – the train operators, the Regulator,Network Rail – and the pupils have ended up producing a rather anodyne document. So that gets a B-plus for effort and for being on the right lines, although a C-minus for failing to deliver the radical shake-up promised. This coming year will be particularly testing for the class and it remains in doubt whether they will be able to handle the extra work they will now have.

Alistair Darling, the head pupil, appears to have done everything which the teachers asked of him. He has kept the railways out of the headlines, bored everyone to tears so that noone noticed how bad some of his homework was, and avoided any great confrontations with the other classes. Verdict: A model pupil, perhaps, but definitely in the wrong school.

The train operator class has had a pretty good year. One prefect recently told me that since the SRA could not negotiate buying a carpet in an Arab souk, let alone a franchise agreement, he had screwed so much money out of them that he could even afford to spend some of it on improving the lot of passengers. Indeed, some profits ( RAIL 493) have this class laughing all the way to the bank. Moreover, they managed to ensure there was nothing too untoward in the review. For some reason, this class is in favour among the head teachers, even though they do nothing special and bicker among themselves.

There was a very odd game of musical chairs being played in this class, with the various operators being told to sit in different places, but that was all the fault of the boys and girls over at SRA who seem not to care Wabout what the performance of individual pupils is, as long as they ask for a minimumof money. So an A for finance and negotiation. Maybe next year they could focus on passengers – which should be their main subject.

We will not intrude too much into private grief at the Health & Safety Executive class, whose rail responsibilities will switch to the ORR. Suffice to say that its prefect, Bill Callaghan, put up a jolly good fight in what was always going to be a lost cause.

Network Rail class, however, has much cause to celebrate. The whole class is flavour of the month with theDepartment which sees it as the one bright spot in a dysfunctional industry. That’ll be thanks to the first-class understanding of politics – grade A, boys and girls. And the ruthless determination to climb to the top of the school and stamp on your entire fellow industry classes should they get in the way. Despite the A in politics, its propensity to spend apparently endless amounts of money, a staggering £6.7bn this year, means that finance is definitely questionable.Moreover, the top pupils all got lots of extra goodies from the tuck shop, despite not behaving themselves that well (see below).The class has also taken over a lot of extra work, by bringing maintenance in-house, and is set to be given further roles after the rail review. So that’s another grade A for greedily grabbing lots of responsibility from other classes.

They are, though, under pressure, from the mob which refuses to join any class, the school bullies ofRMT.The wild leader, who goes by the name of Crow, has caused endless headaches for NRclass and despiteCrow declaring that head boy Armitt is a good negotiator (that would be because you got your way on pensions in the end then, Crow?), they are threatening all kinds of trouble for the forthcoming year. Only collective action will see off the mob. Crow, though, be warned: bullies always come unstuck in the end.

As well as maths and economics, another particularly bad subject for all classes has been history. No-one seems to have learnt the lessons of it.On the other hand, there is far too much interest – particularly from NR class – in engineering.Engineering excellence is all very well, boys – and you do seem to be mostly boys, there – but you have to put a lot more into other subjects.Media relations, for example.

Do you really think it was a clever idea fiddling bonuses so that your supposed best pupils got lots extra despite the figures not showing much improvement? Let’s see: 22% of salary for top guys in bonuses, around 10% for managers and a couple of hundred quid for the people who actually do the work. Now how much better could all that cash been used? A big F for treating the passengers, still struggling to get fromA to B on time, like they are stupid enough not to have noticed that their journey experience is pretty rotten.

It would be nice, one year, not to have to write “could do better.” There are, however, at least some signs of improvement. Passenger numbers seem to be picking up a bit, even if government targets have been abandoned and they are packed on to overcrowded trains that don’t reach their destination on time; the West Coast project, partly descoped, is almost under control; and performance is inching up towards a more acceptable level. But, boys and girls – there is still a great lack of ambition and an absence of vision or imagination. We’ve now had ten years since the comprehensive became a public school and most of you are still behaving as if it were a secondary mod on a bad estate.

So instead of yet again “could do better”, let’s start next term with the mantra “we can get good grades in all subjects…”