Rail 515: Going back to go forwards: relearning about integration

As the much-praised new control centres demonstrate, the network is being reintegrated – but it’s being done slowly and by stealth rather than overnight, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR believes.

The ungrammatical New Labour slogan of ‘forwards not back’ may have got them back into Downing Street, but it is not always right. Indeed, in many ways the railway has to go back to go forwards, and relearn the skills that were lost in the crazy railway diaspora of the mid-1990s.

This was apparent when I recently visited the new Integrated Control Centre at Swindon. It is not fully functioning yet, but various elements of Network Rail and the train operators, First Great Western and First Great Western Link (still, under the rules, partly separate), are housed on the same floor of a dull office block near Swindon station.

There is already more coordination between the teams, and there is an integrated information system that, among much other impressive detail, shows the progress of every train in the area covered by the franchises and, cleverly, the next service which that particular stock is going to operate. When the system is fully running later this year, an NR manager will be responsible for ensuring the running of the network when there has been an incident. But, of course, this is reinventing the wheel.

As Kevin Gale, operations director of FGW, explained: “In the days of British Rail, this single network manager would have been called the divisional manager.” This ‘fat controller’ – an expression used liberally by those explaining how the new system will work – will have the right to cancel services of any train company in order to bring back the situation to normal as soon as possible after a perturbation.

FGW expects that the controller will act with the interests of the passenger in mind. For example, cancelling an up Link service during the morning rush hour is generally a bad idea. It is better to run a train late even if that causes knock-on effects, because otherwise the overcrowding on subsequent services will be unbearable.

Making the right decision in those circumstances can be difficult and the fat controllers will have to have to be experienced rail operators and have the courage to make unpopular decisions. And therein lies a problem. Are there enough experienced people out there to do this difficult job? Finding and recruiting them is, apparently, proving hard but I am sure that with enough money, the right people will be found. Even then, though, this will not be an entirely integrated railway.

There will still be teams of people fromNRand FirstGroup arguing over the reason for delays in order to attribute the minutes on which the performance regime is based. There will remain a contractual relationship between NR and the operators, and therefore, at times, there are bound to be problems that are difficult to resolve without recourse to higher levels of management or even, God forbid, lawyers.

So far, the signs are good that the right level of co-operation can be achieved and the delay per incident has been reduced by three minutes. And at least those arguing against each other are now working in the same room, though at opposite ends of it. How far integration can go without a more formal arrangement between a train operator and NR remains an interesting question.

In the North West, the head of Merseytravel, Neil Scales, has long been pressing for the authority to gain control of the infrastructure in the area. Merseyrail is already an anomaly because the right to let the franchise to run the local third-rail train services has been devolved by the Strategic Rail Authority to Merseytravel, the Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority. Scales and his team believe that vertical integration – or ‘local decisionmaking’ as they call it – would be ‘better value for money’ and they have proposed that NR’s infrastructure be transferred to Merseytravel on a 125-year lease and then sub-leased to an ‘infraco’.

This is not unlike how the Docklands Light Railway, a very successfully operated service with excellent performance, is run. In the railWhite Paper, ministers made special provision for vertical integration, saying: “The government is sympathetic to its [Merseytravel’s] proposal to gain full local-decision-making, covering responsibility for operating, maintaining and renewing the track, station and signals of Merseyrail’s Wirral and Northern Lines.”

Whether the government sees this as a one-off or as a testing bed for other such arrangements is unclear. However, while discussions between the various parties are taking place, it has become apparent that there are stumbling blocks. NR, while having to put on a vaguely supportive public face, is rather hostile to losing part of its territory to an operator. Moreover, it points to potential safety problems as a couple of signalboxes overlap between territories and therefore trains on its patch would have to be operated by people it did not employ. Now the trade unions have expressed doubts. Around 130 staff would have to be transferred and there are concerns about potential job losses.

But, more important, there are strategic objections from the unions. TSSA, which represents whitecollar staff, opposes the move to split off Merseyrail from the rest of the national network because the union’s executive wants to hold out for a total reintegration of the railway, rather than a partial move like this.

This is unrealistic. Merseyrail would serve as an experiment, and its success would put pressure on the Department for Transport to allow further such initiatives. Remember, NR fi rst took three contracts for maintenance back in-house before it decided on reclaiming all of them. While the Merseyrail decision was obviously a difficult call for the union, it should remember the adage that perfection can be the enemy of the good. Reintegration will not happen as a big bang.

As the creation of the control centres shows, it will be done gradually and surreptitiously. Going backwards to go forwards can be an unedifying sight and the government will hope that it will take place away from the glare of publicity.

National Express: Bus or rail?

I have never quite trusted National E xpress Group’s intentions in the rail market. Is the company more interested in promoting its coach division or its trains ? Certainly those doubts were intensified when I travelled through Stansted Airport the other day.

Passengers in the baggage collection area are besieged by advertisements for the coach services to Stratford in East London promising ‘great connections with trains, London buses and London Underground’ while the promotion of the Stansted Express rail service to Tottenham Hale and Liverpool Street was far more low-key, even though it is a far more direct and q uicker way of reaching central London. Moreover, the trains are run, of course, by ‘one’, a National Express company.

Now I would be far less sceptical of NEG’s intentions if there were any attempt to integrate these services or to promote them in tandem with one another. But the extent to which they are regarded as separate and discrete was made all too apparent by the fact that the company seems to advertise against its own services, encouraging people to use the bus rather than the train. This may well be a necessary separation because of fears that the C ompetition Commission would discourage such integration, but surely the company does not have to go to these lengths to try to get people off its own trains.

This ridiculous situation does not stop National Express from ripping off its rail passengers. On the plane back to England, Ryanair was selling return train tickets to London for the full whack of £ 24 .However, the steward did have the good grace to warn us that there was no train service available, only a bus replacement. But, of course, it would be far cheaper for those wanting to get to central London just to buy a ticket on the bus to Stratford, which is £7 – half the one-way train fare for the bus replacement service to Liverpool Street, which is £ 14.50.

You can bet your bottom dollar that National Express was not pointing out this price difference to the punters buying a ticket for the bus replacement service. While I am on the subject of the ridiculously named ‘one’, when you next visit Liverpool Street, check out the ‘E scape to Hertfordshire’ poster placed by ‘one’ railway near the ticket office. It shows an idyllic scene of a ruined castle near a river. As reader Roger Backhouse points out, it seems a bit unlikely for Hertfordshire which is not replete with castles or rivers.

Indeed the castle is Goodrich, in Herefordshire on the River Wye. O ne suspects that someone in the design department didn’t know their Hereford from their Hertford – only ‘one’ letter different, of course.

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