Rail 558: Chaos on Brunel’s railway demands a new BR

The state of the Great Western Railway must have Brunel spinning in his grave. It is the operational issues that brought the railway into the national headlines over the past couple of weeks but there are fundamental problems with the infrastructure that have to be sorted out over the next few years if the line is not to deteriorate under the stress of the demands from the extra passengers flooding on to it.

Performance is by far the worst of any of the mainline TOCs and is showing little signs of improvement.

Let’s look at the operational problems first, highlighted by the recent chaotic scenes in the Bristol – Bath area, so well publicised by the very canny campaign run by the local commuters (who, as an aside, have shown that with a bit of imagination and effort, you can get onto the front pages and the top of the radio bulletins with a local story, an example for other campaigners to follow). There is something of an unseemly ‘it’s not my fault guv’ row between First Great Western, other train operators and the Department for Transport over who is responsible the shortage of rolling stock that has led to overcrowding and branch lines being closed. First have blamed the state of trains they received from Arriva as part of the takeover of the Wessex train service and delays over the completion of a new maintenance facility. Ministers and the Department have kept largely mum about it, but they have already called in Alison Forster, the boss of First Great Western, for a pep talk and there are dark mutterings about being forced to hand in the franchise. I hold no brief for First, which has never been the most imaginative or forward looking of the rail companies, but most of the responsibility for this fiasco lies clearly with the Department and ministers, rather than the train operator.

It was the Department which specified that the rolling stock for these regional and local services would have to be reduced from over 130 to 112. Now perhaps First, if it was worried about its reputation, should not have taken the franchise on with the onerous requirement, but presumably any other bidder would have been required to make the same cut. A veteran railwayman, who has worked for both TOCs and Railtrack, told me recently that under the franchise process it is absolutely essential for the specifier – now the Department – to nail down every commitment from the operator ‘or else, as with South West Trains until the recent new franchise, they just make merry’. But the converse is true, too, especially in the new climate of big franchise premia. The operator will not offer any extra services unless they are commercially viable.

And transporting people between Bath and Bristol in the rush hour is never going to be a profitable operation, as for most of the rest of the day the rolling stock will be empty. But it does perform a vital role for the local economy which is why subsidy is justified. Clearly someone in the Department forgot that

.Taking away the franchise from First would have serious implications for the whole franchising process, given what has already happened to GNER. A senior Labour politician recently told me that having the occasional franchise failure, like GNER, was good because it showed that the Department was getting its franchise lettings just about right. I could not disagree more. The aim of the franchise process, surely, is to get the best out of the network, and that is not done by having franchise collapses with all the loss of morale and uncertainty that follows in their wake. Building in failure is not a way of boosting the public’s confidence in rail, or of improving the morale of hardpressed managers trying to run trains on an overcrowded network.

However, we could see more collapses or more scenes like those in the West Country. By the end of this year, all the major franchises, apart from Southern, will be on long term contracts that take them up to or beyond 2014. That date is important because it marks the end of the next Network Rail control period, the settlement for which will be announced in the summer with the publication of the High Level Output Specification. As a senior industry figure pointed out to me recently, all the franchise agreements will have been signed by the end of this year (apart from Southern), and therefore the Department will not be able to specify any growth without renegotiation. That could be prohibitively expensive since the franchisee will be in a very strong position to dictate the price of any extra services. Bristol – Bath may therefore be the precursor to similar cock-ups. Gradually, people will simply be squeezed off the railway and those that can will find alternatives, such as several callers to the Radio 5 phone-in on which I appeared the Monday of the strike.

My suggestion in my last column that there was a desperate need for an independent rail agency and it should be called British Railways may have been partly in jest but actually it is clear that the day to day running of the railway, and that includes timetable specification and stock usage, has to be returned to an independent body run by transport professionals. The current situation is shown to be more and more untenable as each incident like this is highlighted. Far from making the lines of responsibility clearer, the Railways Act 2005 gave far too much power to the unaccountable grey men and women of the Department. As I have said many times before, this is not a long term solution for the running of the railways and the timing of the inevitable reorganisation, with the creation of a Railways Agency, is brought forward every time there is a highly publicised issue like the passengers’ fare ‘strike’ at Bath.

The need for such an agency is highlighted, too, by the state of the infrastructure on the line. The Great Western would, under British Rail, have been the next major line to have been refurbished after the West Coast but privatisation and the huge cost overrun of the West Coast put paid to that. Indeed, the West Coast fiasco will ensure that future enhancements will not be carried out under the banner of a huge overriding scheme like that again.

Instead, there will be a string of minor schemes (on the railway that still means dozens of millions of pounds) to bring about incremental improvements. To be fair to Network Rail, this is happening on the Great Western. As mentioned before (Rail 551) the double track between Swindon and Gloucester is being reinstated in order to provide a relief line to the Severn Tunnel and when I met Robbie Burns, the local route director recently, he outlined a whole series of other schemes to improve performance, such as replacing ten times as many switches and crossings annually compared with Railtrack, and increasing the speed of most of the slow line between Paddington and Reading from 75 mph to 90 mph in a project one third funded by First. That is a rare exception and the infrastructure work needs to be coordinated carefully with operations.

What is not happening – or not happening fast enough – is the decision over the big issues such as the replacement of the High Speed Train fleet and electrification. Nor has a decision been made over relieving the bottleneck at Reading without which performance the line will never be able to improve to the level of other lines because it is responsible for a staggering 15 per cent of all delays on Great Western. Again, that should be the remit of an independent agency.

I am prepared to put Mystic Wolmar’s neck on the line and say that the creation of such a specialist rail organisation will be announced before the end of the decade. The precise nature of the body will, of course, be the subject of great controversy. Chris Grayling, the shadow transport secretary, is preparing his own rail review and it is clear from talking to him that he is more and more clear that the fragmentation of the railways and, in particular, the separation of the infrastructure from the operations is the major cause of the huge rise in costs on the railway. The timing of the publication of the Tories’ policy on rail is not yet known but one thought is that he will issue it on the same day as Labour’s 30 year strategy document, providing commentators with a clear contrast between the two parties (interestingly, the blue one may well be more radical and leftwing than the red one!). The conundrum for the Tories though is a difficult one: if they reintegrated the operators into Network Rail, then they are effectively renationalising the railway, not something that I can quite imagine the Tories would do; on the other hand, if they break up Network Rail and hand the infrastructure to the operators, effectively they are reprivatising it, which the collapse of Railtrack showed was not a viable idea. Grayling hints at a magical third way, but Tony Blair’s similar big political idea has long disappeared. Whatever he comes up with, 2007 promises to be an interesting year but the poor people suffering on Great Western need relief long before any Tory government will come to power.