Rail 572: Another year of “could do better” in the railway school

It’s that time of year folks, when the railway school headmaster sends out his end of year report to all those fee-paying parents (and boy, they are paying lots more this year!) and misbehaving children. And eventful it has been, with plenty to report, lots of changes, an accident, a financial collapse and, of course, all those promises to do better in the next 30 years.

Let’s start with Network Rail class which, in the opinion of many, is not performing as well as it should. Yes, it did bring down delay minutes but not as fast as it ought and the rail regulator, Chris Bolt, wielded the cane, saying, that while the improvements were welcome, ‘there are some worrying signs; performance improvements this year have been as a result of the train operating companies rather than Network Rail, reducing the delays they cause.’ Moreover, he added, ‘the number of asset failures during the year has increased’.

Therefore, the class is definitely in the must try harder category. It will be interesting to see whether the new head boy, Iain Coucher, will be comfortable in his new role. He was a jolly good number two, the Rottweiler to John Armitt’s Afghan Hound, but now he will have to learn rather more diplomatic skills when dealing with other members (should we call them stakeholders?) of the railway school.

Which brings us neatly onto the Stakhanovite Bolt and the regulation class. He must have thought he was onto a nice sinecure when he took on the role of arbiter for the London Underground Public Private Partnership and, surprisingly perhaps, did not give it up when he became chairman of the ORR. However, Bolt has now found that the PPP job is possibly even more difficult than the ORR, given the incompetence of Metronet, the infrastructure company in charge of two thirds of the Tube’s maintenance and refurbishment. Bolt was given a very difficult task when he had to adjudicate on how much of a possible overspend amounting to £2bn was the responsibilty of the company for failing to carry out its work ‘economically and efficiently’.

Bolt played a blinder, making sure that his ruling led to the collapse of Metronet while not giving total satisfaction to London Underground. He will have his work cut out as further rulings will be sought, although at the end of the day, now that Metronet’s £350m equity has been lost, most of the money will now have to come from the taxpayer.

Bolt, too, as mentioned above, is beginning to try to put the squeeze on Network Rail but this is a far more difficult now that the company has no equity and no shareholders. Last month, Bolt and his fellow regulators handed out a harsh punishment of £2.4m for Network Rail’s failures on the Portsmouth resignalling project. It is a pretty big fine, and in effect shows his displeasure with the company. However, in a way it is daft since the money goes straight into the Treasury coffers, thus reducing NR’s ability to invest that money in improving the railway. The story, in fact, highlights what the old regulator, Tom Winsor, pointed out when Network Rail was created, which is that without an equity buffer, there is very little the regulator can do to force the company to behave itself.

Nor, is there much the government can do about naughty pupils in the train operators class of whom there are quite a few. First we had GNER walking off in a huff because its attempts to claim more from the tuckshop was turned down. The government was simply immune to all its excuses, like the rising price of electricity, better performance from Network Rail (really, GNER, that was a pretty feeble excuse) and the fall-out of the 7/7 bombings. So GNER did not even wait for the bell announcing the end of the lesson.

Bad behaviour, too, from First Capital Connect (what a silly name) and Stagecoach, who both put up fares for their off peak passengers whom, we all thought, were supposed to be attracted on to the railway. As for First Great Western, their performance has been so bad that even their head of class, Moir Lockhead, admits they have failed but he promises that things will get better (now where have we heard that before?).

There has been much whingeing, too, from senior boys who ought to know better. The two Richard Bs, Bowker of National Express house, and Branson of Virgin, were both seen quietly blubbing behind the bicycle sheds when they failed to get recent franchises and both went to matron to demand an explanation. Now come on lads, you must know why – you simply wanted too much from the tuck shop and those stalwarts of the government class only know one language and it’s not about the prettiness of your logos. Let’s hope these grown up boys can hold back their tears when the announcement of the allocation of the East Coast franchise is made later this month.

On the plus side, the operator class has contributed towards a reduction in delays and, indeed, done rather better than Network Rail in this regard. So at least one gold star there. However, on a more general point. There is so much penny-pinching, treatment of passengers as if they were all fare dodgers and general heavy-handedness by several members of this class that next year we may to rename it Ryanrailways class in honour of Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair for whom customer care is a four letter word. (I am tempted to start a Ryanrailways section in my column, so dear readers do email or write to me with your latest examples of harsh treatment at the hands of the train operators)

There has, too, been bad behaviour from the rosco class. These bad boys refuse to lower their trousers to be roundly thrashed by the ministers from government class who claim that, they too, have been raiding the tuck shop for far too much money. Instead of dropping their trousers, the roscos have stood firm and now the ministers have gone off to the Competition Commission to seek redress. While the rosco boys have been on the phone to Childline to complain of their ill-treatment, the ministers have been trying to find ways of not using the rosco class at all and, instead, leasing trains themselves. This is a nasty little dispute and one which is bound to end in tears, and I suspect they will not be coming from the rosco boys’ waterworks.

A quick word about the Railway Safety & Standards Board classand, in particular, one of its prefects, Anson Jack, who recently produced a truly excellent piece of work, burying the issue of seat belts on trains once and for all. They deserve great praise for their sensitive handling of the subject and the thoroughness of their research, as well as they way they ensured that other stakeholders were involved.

I have left the most important to last. Government class has been hyperactive this year, releasing a whole wodge of documents last month. The main one, Delivering a sustainable railway, written by Mark Lambirth, the head boy in rail division, is a banal and unimaginative piece of work which does not live up to its title since it offers few suggestions about creating a better railway. It is a shortsighted piece of work that provides very little vision or strategy and deserves, at best, a C+ sinceLambirth, who thrives in poetry classes, has written it quite well. He could have done a lot better but one suspect that he had his colleagues from the Treasury standing over him while he composed this essay.

Another departure was Douglas Alexander, who was only head prefect of this class for a year. He showed real promise and flair, and it is unfortunate that he has matriculated so soon, leaving his department in the hands of Ruth Kelly who, so far, seems to have shown very little interest in the whole subject of transport, particularly the railways. She is, apparently, a member of a strange Catholic sect that indulges in self-mortification which may explain why Gordon has given her the transport brief.

In sum, another year of ‘could do better’. In some respects, there is an air of despondency around the school as a great opportunity to improve things has been lost. Let’s hope that does not translate into performance among the pupils next year.

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