Rail 598: Too many visits to the tuck shop again in the railway school

Another year has flown by, so it’s time again for this column to hold the Railway schoolchildren to account. And a momentous year it has been, with lots of misbehaviour and, as we shall see, yet again far too many visits to the tuck shop.

Indeed, that is the theme of the year, the seemingly insatiable desire for ever bigger dollops of money. It is fortunate that overall the industry is booming with passenger numbers seemingly on a constant rising curve since, otherwise, there would be bigger fights outside the tuck shop over what would be a diminishing amount of available cash. So far, therefore, there has been just of war of words, but the verbal brickbats being launched by Network Rail pupils and the Office of Rail Regulation boys could break out into a genuine all out battle with desks and chairs sent flying through class room windows.

Indeed, Ian Coucher the new head boy of Network Rail who earned his spurs as enforcer for his predecessor, John Armitt, has been throwing his weight around in an uncompromising manner. He told Chris Bolt, and his fellows in ORR class, that the £27.8 billion proposed in the review for the period 2009/14 was simply not enough in order for him to keep all his toys on the track and ensure that there were enough new ones.

But he is not a subtle lad and he seems to have gone about this row in a rather too belligerent manner. Picking a fight with the regulator is a tricky matter. You have to ensure that you do it at the right time and enlist the support of the rest of the pupils in the railway school. And he has not done that. The cock up over the possession at Rugby and two other places after Xmas was bad enough, but Coucher’s reaction that ‘we got all the other projects right’ was to misunderstand railway traditions. The aim, Coucher jnr, is to get it right every time all the time, not to get most things right most of the time and then reckon that’s good enough. Please write that out 100 times, boy.

The fellows in the Train Operator class were so incensed with Network Rail’s performance that some of them pushed for a resolution at the company’s meeting for an improvement but it was resoundingly defeated by the goody-goodies among the members. In normal circumstances, this should have resulted in a big punch up but the train operators are a meek bunch when it comes to dealing with their main supplier and they were reluctant to have a fight. Nevertheless, there are members of the Regulation class who have taken an interest in this little episode and are questioning Network Rail’s governance structure. Watch out for future fireworks. There has been mention of a ‘last chance saloon’ here.

Not that the Train Operator boys and girls – there are a large number of girl prefects in this class – have all that much to boast about. On the plus side, performance has improved and none of them has got into financial trouble, thanks to booming passenger numbers. And the worst performer, First Great Western, certainly seems to have got its act together under its new prefect, Andrew Haines.

But the Ryanrailways approach to dealing with passengers by some operators mentioned in last year’s report seems to be spreading. There are several reports – and one personal experience – of National Express treating passengers poorly on its East Coast franchise and complaints about the heavy handed approach of inspectors at Stagecoach – which, to be fair, has done a good job of turning its South West Trains franchise around, even if it was by padding out the timetable – abound. The approach shown by many of its staff, egged on by their employers, is that all passengers are criminals trying to do the company out of money, rather than customers who have got into some difficulty, often through no fault of their own. Having just announced record profits for its rail operations, the company, still led by its co-founder Brian Souter, has announced a plan to close or reduce hours at a host of ticket offices, making it even more difficult to get hold of a ticket. Yet, as one of my informants recently told me, the company’s inspectors adopt a position of total disbelief when told that ticket machines are not working and try to impose penalty fares as much as possible. Now of course there may be a case for reducing ticket office hours if there are fewer transactions and people can really do without. But there is a much weaker case for simultaneously removing the presence of staff at stations and making it difficult to buy tickets on board trains. The company can’t have it both ways – so write that out 100 times please, young Souter.

As for the Passenger Representation class, Passenger Focus seems sometimes, well not enough passenger focussed. Its latest essay suggests in big headlines that 80 per cent of people are happy with their rail journey, but then on closer examination, just 40 per cent are satisfied with the price, 35 per cent with toilets and 34 per cent with how delays were dealt with. The tolerance of most passengers is demonstrated by the fact that 56 per cent are happy with the availability of staff when, in fact, most of the time there aren’t any. Or perhaps that’s what they mean, given the unpleasantness mentioned above!

Like last year, I have left till last the performance of Government class because it is in so many ways the most important. There are, of course, two forms in the class, ministers and civil servants and It is only now becoming apparent the extent to which the railways are being run by the latter. And what a hash they are making of it.

When the Strategic Rail Authority class was abolished three years ago, I predicted that there would be a lack of independent expertise when it came to running the railway. But I never envisaged it would be this bad. On both the major procurement exercises for rolling stock, IEP (Intercity Express Project) replacement for the High Speed Train, and the new stock for Thameslink, the civil servants are wasting millions on consultants because they are not professional railway managers able to make their own judgements. The IEP is a disaster waiting to happen. All the experienced people with whom I talk in the industry say that it would be far better either to have specified a much simpler project or, best of all, to have simply bought an existing train off the shelf. One industry insider told me that optimistically just preparing the specification for a train that cannot be used anywhere else will take up the time of 400 engineers for two years – with extra cost that will leave little change from £400m. So there’s bound to be many more trips to the tuck shop which, of course, means less nosh for other worthy projects.

As for the behaviour of the ministers, the head girl, Ruth Kelly was little to be seen in the early days, though recently she has had the confidence to leave the Whitehall classroom more often. Interestingly, it is now clear that she was left a rather dud bunch of cards when taking up her post, notably over the strategy document looking 30 years ahead. While that document, which was written by the now departed boy from the civil servants class, Mark Lambirth, ruled out electrification, on the most dubious grounds, Ms Kelly is already reconsidering that, but, it must be stressed, there is still little prospect of anything happening on the ground much before 2014. By then, of course, Ms Kelly and probably all her New Labour friends will have been booted out of the school including her rail minister, young Tom Harris, who probably needs to mug up on his history as he is wont to make rather ill-founded remarks about the achievements of British Rail.

So given that within a couple of years they may well be taking over the school it is rather disappointing to note that the lads and lasses in the Opposition class have been largely absent from the school entirely. The head girl, whose name escapes me but for some reason reminds me of the witch in 101 Dalmatians has barely turned up to class all year and certainly has produced no written work at all. The situation is completely different from last year when a very active head boy, Chris Grayling, was going round the rail industry talking to people and trying to formulate policy but there seemed little chance of his party achieving power. Now that the Tories are odds on to win the next election, it is regrettable that his successor has distinguished herself by avoiding making any interesting pronouncements over the past year. Apparently she is off elsewhere soon, and let’s hope her prefect, Stephen Hammond, who certainly appears to have done some thinking about the industry, is elevated into her position.

The prognosis for the school next year is an interesting one. As usual, everyone could try a bit harder, especially those in Network Rail and Train Operator classes but the crucial question is whether the tuck shop will remain full thanks to passenger numbers and government grants, or whether the cupboard will start to look a bit bare next year. I predict things will be tougher for the school next year.

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