Railways in the news

There’s no shortage of things happening on the railways. If it is not snow on the tracks, it’s high fares, plans for high speed trains or franchises getting into trouble. Today I did interviews on two different subjects for separate channels at ITN, the government’s insistence that the train operators have to stick to the RPI plus one formula of fares rises, even if there is deflation, and the departure of Tim O’Toole from the London Underground, on which I have written a piece for the Standard. In between, I went to a press conference at the Office of Rail Regulation where new figures reveal that was a small fall in passenger numbers in the third quarter, compared with 6 per cent growth the previous year.

At times like this, it is sometimes difficult to keep hold of the bigger picture. But there are lessons from all these stories. Fares are undoubtedly in a completely chaotic state with no rhyme or reason for the various differences and it is clear that there is a need to simplify the structure, and ultimately only government can actually undertake that task. But given the train operators have signed contracts on the basis of the existing system, it would take years to get a change in the system.

However, it is the loss of Tim O’Toole that is really most instructive. He was an undoubted success at the top of the London Underground. He had both the ability to handle top managers and bat for the Tube, but also the common touch which made him hugely popular among staff. Importantly, he was working in the public sector which belies the myth that organisations have to be privately-run in order to be efficient.

Moreover, he was helped by the democratic structure he was working in. Boris and the Transport Commissioner Peter Hendy dealt with most of the issues relating to government and politics, leaving O’Toole free to run the Underground on a day to day basis. Of course he shone when there were crises, such as 7/7 and the Metronet collapse, but importantly most of the time he was able to deal with simply running the system and dealing with the troublesome unions. It is difficult to think of many managers in the privately run franchises who have managed to run a train service as successfully as the quiet American.

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