Rail 587: Punishment time on the railways – but will it be effective?

It was Dostoyevsky week in the rail industry at the end of February when two companies, Network Rail and First Great Western found themselves punished for their crimes by their respective regulators. The events of that momentous week illustrate both the contrasting way that the different parts of the industry are regulated and the failings of those systems.

Let’s start with FGW. To some extent this came out of the blue. There had, of course, been a long series of complaints from the public about the failings of what has become known as WorstGroup in Private Eye on the Great Western franchise which has long held the wooden spoon in the performance league table. Overcrowding on several regional services, notably the Cardiff to Portsmouth route, has also been highlighted by some very effective campaigning by protest groups.

However, there was a surprise in the Department for Transport’s press release: the revelation that the company had misreported – the kindest possible description – the number of cancellations, later revealed to be about one per day for nearly a year. As in Crime and Punishment, FGW seems to have been so guilt wracked by its sins that the company came to the Department to confess them. I suspect, though, just as with Dostoyevsky’s anti hero, Raskalnikov, it was only because the authorities were closing in on the company that it came clean.

The punishment is a rather mixed bag of measures including the requirement to sell 500,000 more cheap tickets than previously planned, additional carriages on the Cardiff – Portsmouth services, improving passenger information at some stations and increasing passenger compensation.

The trouble with this is that the Department is both responsible for letting the franchise and for policing it. There are clear flaws with the franchise, particularly over its acceptance of FirstGroup’s bid which was based on reducing the number of trains it was leasing. On FGW’s side, the responsibility for this lies at the door of Dean Finch, the group’s finance director, who takes an über accountant’s view of the world and clearly specified unrealistic cuts in order to win the franchise bid but fortunately he has now been despatched off to run the company’s US operations leaving Andrew Haines, a railwayman with a good track record, in charge. However, the Department must take some of the responsibility for this and therefore it would have looked bad had the franchise been terminated at this point. In the old days, it was the Strategic Rail Authority which regulated the franchisees and therefore there was less of a political requirement to make things look good – would the Department have called time on Connex SouthEastern in the way that Richard Bowker did? I very much doubt it. If we have to have to live with the current structure, then we may as well have an independent regulator who has such a power since it is a hangover from the original structure of the industry created in the mid 1990s that Bolt and his gang have no say over franchises.

The knuckle rapping was presented as costing the company £29m but in fact that is a mere guess. FGW will not say how many cheap tickets it sells already, and when pressed how the extra sales could be measured, merely said that the Department trusts the company. Like with keeping cancellation statistics, presumably!

Nor are the other measures quantifiable to £29m, and insiders suggest that FirstGroup will be spending a lot more than that because it has taken on a whole layer of new top management, as well as drivers and staff. At least we know that much of the money will be spent on improving the rail service which is not the case with the £14m imposed by the Office of Rail Regulation on the hapless Network Rail following the post Xmas fiasco at Rugby and elsewhere. It was almost painful to listen to poor old Chris Bolt, the chairman of ORR, fail to answer the question on the Today programme about whether imposing such a fine served any useful purpose whatsoever given that Network Rail is a publicly funded company with no shareholders to bear the pain of such a punishment. The fine, like the £2.4m imposed last year as a result of the Portsmouth resignalling delays, is a hangover from the days of Railtrack which did have investors. But it is a nonsense especially as it is now clear that the money is going back to the Treasury (previously when I wrote this, the ORR corrected me but now Bolt has informed me that I was right all along and that it goes into the Consolidated Fund!).

Even the directors’ inflated bonuses will not necessarily be affected, and the fact that the chairman, Ian McAllister, was collecting his knighthood on the day of the announcement of the fine was priceless. Surely, a man who cared a whit about the image of his company would have postponed his visit to Buck House for a couple of months (or permanently!)  While the issue of collecting a gong may seem trivial, it is rather illustrative of a culture within Network Rail based on its monopoly status and certainly reinforces the view that it is a law unto itself.

Passenger Focus has suggested a way forward, arguing that the fine should be spent on passenger improvements. Indeed, if Network Rail is canny, it should now resent a package of measures worth at least twice £14m to make sure that its offer is accepted. Now how about starting with improved cycling parking at all its major stations, a pressing need given the increased demand for such facilities (see below). It has to be something measurable and concrete, and – this is the difficult bit – additional to previous spending plans.

There are big stakes in all this. If FGW continues to fail, the Department will, reluctantly, be forced to take the franchise away, raising questions about the whole franchising regime. And similarly, if Network Rail makes another major error, especially if it involves a train accident, the political ramifications will be huge.

Move the Barrier campaign gathers momentum

I have had several responses to my request for proposals on what the empty space at St Pancras could be used for (see Rail 584 and 586). The most paranoid but, in a way, the most coherent, is that it would be used to keep people in should the station be attacked by a dirty bomb or germ warfare. Certainly, the key point made by a correspondent is that the pen has not been created for the welfare of the people who are going to be trapped inside it.

The official response that in an emergency the doors would be opened just doesn’t stack up because the barriers have been sited to enclose a vast space that must serve some purpose in the eyes of its creators. I am not generally a conspiracy theorist, believing that cock up is more often the most coherent explanation, but in this case it is difficult to resile from the point of view that only a sinister explanation makes sense.

As another correspondent pointed out, the creation of the ‘St Pancras pen’ actually makes rapid evacuation more difficult. Once the barriers are open, the freed passengers would have to push their way into a very narrow space, whereas if the barriers were nearer the buffer stops, there would be far more space on the concourse to which people could escape.

What is even more astonishing about this affair is the fact that those responsible for providing the service seem not to care that the whole St Pancras experience is being wrecked by the ridiculous security measures. When I met Richard Brown, the head of Eurostar, the other day, he merely said it was something to do with ‘security’ but again there was nothing approaching a coherent explanation. Eurostar’s attitude, in any case, is that they are tenants of this building and therefore do not have any input into such fundamental matters of design, which is at the root of the problem – no railway people have taken sufficient interest in ensuring that the station is designed to meet passenger needs, rather than the fitting in with the world view of the security industry for whom Nirvana would be for all of us to stay at home the whole time lest we get hurt in the big wide world.

While on the subject of St Pancras, the lack of cycling parking remains a considerable source of embarrassment. Any spare lamppost and railing is now decorated with a chained up bike, because the only spaces available are tucked upstairs in a car park but the location is virtually a secret as there are no signs to them. There is, actually, a very good area for outside bike parking alongside the side of the German Gymnasium by the main entrance of the domestic station where stands could easily be placed without causing any inconvenience, at a cost of a few hundred quid. If anyone from London & Continental is reading this, please have a look at it. I know there is a long term plan for a mega bike park, but that is at least two years away. In the meantime, the whole St Pancras area will continue to be flooded with bikes hanging off every spare bit of street furniture.

Google maps – made in America

While on the subject of campaigns, I am minded to launch another one. Has anyone else noticed that Google maps do not show the location of stations? They show railway lines but the only clue to where the station might be is the name of roads such as ‘station approach’ or ‘railway drive’.

Of course in America, the home of Google, where most stations have long disappeared or are barely used, that may not be such a problem. But in the UK, the station is one of the key locations for many purposes, not just train travel. It seems to be a deliberate policy rather than just a lacuna to omit stations in this way.

There is a serious issue. As more and more people rely on digital means of finding their way, the absence of train stations may well deter some  potential rail users. It is as if Google were writing out a whole piece of our history and our infrastructure. Here is something for the new team at the Association of Train Operating Companies to start making a fuss about.

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