Rail 619: Lemming-like operators set to jump off cliff

It is difficult at the moment not to liken the train operators to lemmings hurtling off the edge of the cliff in an act of collective suicide. They seem to be trying to outdo each other in their efforts to make themselves unpopular just at a time when they need all the help and support they can get from the press and public.
The list is endless and I can barely do justice to it in one column. But here’s a few examples of the latest moves in the bid to be top of the unpopularity charts. Most recently, we have National Express, definitely a banker for number one, charging people extra to guarantee a seat, a move which comes on top of a mid year round of increases in train fares and a dramatic cutback in catering. The company is also hell-bent on gating yet more mainline stations, an unpopular and unnecessary move which is not, despite the operator’s claim, necessarily ‘fit for purpose’ as its estimates of the number of ticketless travellers appear to be greatly exaggerated.
In a effort to further endear itself to ‘customers’ National Express recently refused to accept many tickets from people who had been affected by a strike on East Midlands Trains. According to a spokesman, National Express East Coast accepted EMT passengers with ‘Anytime’ tickets but those with advance purchase would not be carried, except between Grantham and Peterborough and between Peterborough and East Anglia. Sheffield tickets were accepted if marked ‘route Sheffield’.
My informant was incensed by this: ‘The people at Sheffield said that ticket would not be accepted by GNER. But surely the most direct way to do London – Sheffield is via Chesterfield. When that became unavailable, why should GNER not recognise the ticket?
Why are “Anytime” tickets any more valid than a saver ticket if the alternative route is down?
Why should I pay for an “Anytime ” ticket when a Super Off-peak Return was the right one for the journey?’
The reason given by NEX for these restrictions was that since ‘Sunday is one of our busiest days’ there was concern about overcrowding. All this was supposedly done with the agreement of EMT but the latter was in fact not best pleased. Understandably so. Surely most people would prefer to travel on a crowded train, than not at all, and with extra staff to provide support, and ensure people move down carriages and the like, and even opening up first class – shock – to ordinary punters, many people could have been accommodated. But the operators seem to consider that rail travel is a pleasant optional extra for people with time on their hands who could all go by bus or car if they wanted, and therefore it does not matter that the industry no longer works together at times of crisis like this in order to get as many people to their destinations as possible.
Then there is Stagecoach which put out a ‘consultation’ paper on the possible closure of its travel centre at Waterloo. Well, I am pretty sure that if I stopped a hundred people on the concourse of Waterloo station, 99 of them would say that they did not want the travel centre closed and the other one would be a Japanese tourist with no English. Although the company promises ‘improved’ service at the ticket office, it is effectively a way of deterring people from using since they are far more likely to get clogged up with people wanting to travel to Inverness via Penzance with a stopover in Aberystwyth.
This is an effort to get people to use ticket machines which are fine for relatively simple journeys but the complexity of the London ticket market – which the train operators themselves have resisted attempts to simplify – means it is often impossible to get the cheapest available ticket or it is very difficult to know precisely what option to choose. This happened to me recently when travelling in the evening to Slough from Paddington and it was unclear whether I was entitled to an off-peak return or not – as it happened I was but the rules can be unbelievably complicated and there are many people out there with little knowledge of the system. Look at the chaotic scenes on the Bank Holiday featured on the Railway Eye blog (http://railwayeye.blogspot.com/) with each ticket machine having a dozen or so people waiting in front of it.
For space reasons, we will pass over Stagecoach’s attempt to impose barriers at Sheffield station combined with the ticket checks that have caused local outrage as well as Virgin’s behaviour, mentioned elsewhere in the magazine, in alienating much of the press corps by putting out ridiculous information on Richard Branson’s off the cuff plans for the West Coast Main Line. Instead, let’s focus on the changes at FirstGroup which are set to cause real long term damage to the company. First has recently lost two top class managers in Andrew Haines, by many accounts the best railway manager of his generation, and Elaine Holt, who had performed well at the ridiculously named First Capital Connect. Both appeared to have fallen out with Moir Lockhead, chief executive of the parent company and his new overall trains boss, the Group Rail Director Mary Grant, late of First Scotrail.
FirstGroup is in a total panic about the state of the railway market and is reversing many of the measures that Mr Haines instituted when the Department nearly foreclosed on the Great Western franchise two years ago. He managed to turn that round by the application of basic railways skills and through big improvements in staff morale, always a vital factor when a franchise is on the skids. A separate and independent Great Western board was created which also helped the recovery because its efforts were concentrated on that single franchise, but now Mrs Grant has effectively centralised the whole franchising operation.
Without such a local focus, there are real fears among the staff that the situation will deteriorate again. One, obviously anonymous, train crew member wrote to me that First were making all the same mistakes again. He cites the example of a counterproductive cut: ‘FGW don’t seem bothered about the millions that they are losing in lost revenue as they won’t fill vacancies for ticket assistants who can collect up to £1000 per shift on paytrain routes and yet they only get a salary of £14, 000 per year, as they make it up on their 5 per cent commission.’ He also says that FGW is laying off revenue inspectors leaving none at all for the Bristol/South Wales area and that the demoralised staff often do not bother with ticket checks. Another source suggests there will be massive redundancies of staff at the front end, which will impact on all the morale carefully built up by Mr Haines.
Of course, we all know the subtext. The train operators are under great pressure to cut costs in order to be able to pay the premium payments they have agreed under their franchise contracts. Given that they wanted to take that risk and signed up willingly, they can hardly expect to be rescued but half their pain is passed on to the government by the cap and collar arrangements which kick in once they are more than 2 per cent below target. And 80 per cent is covered by the arrangement once they reach 6 per cent, so bankruptcy for these firms does not beckons since all of the troubled franchises are owned by major companies some of whom, like FirstGroup and National Express (for which admittedly the cap and collar on East Coast does not kick in until 2011) have recently issued quite reasonable overall figures, despite the downturn.
Yet, in their behaviour, the operators seem to be suggesting that disaster is at hand and only the most dramatic cuts and rises in charges such as reservations and car park charges, will save them even at the expense of losing customer loyalty. But railways are a long term business where discretionary patronage is built up slowly and surely through the convenience and quality of the product. For many other customers, the railway is a monopoly and therefore it is a duty of the train operators to behave reasonably. Yet, the Association of Train Operating Companies seems only to exacerbate the situation by putting up the price of rail cards just at a time when impoverished train travellers need them.
So much of what the operators are doing is short term and deeply damaging to the long term interests of the railway. Of course the ridiculous nature of the short franchising periods encourages them to make cuts, but as one of my sources suggests there is a wider problem: ‘When companies are driven by a narrow interest in their share price, and they have all suffered reductions because of the recession, they become obsessed with doing things which will please the City, however fleetingly. All attention is on the immediate share price without consideration of the long term interests. It makes me question whether the railways should be run by plcs.’ And this person is by no means a socialist!
It is, of course, not only train operators who suffer from this narrow focus. The newspaper industry suffers in a similar way where the product is degraded in the same way but many other companies realise that keeping up standards at a time of recession is crucial for their long term survival. Yet, the TOCs seem to be wiling to throw all of that out of the window because of short term interests. It is noticeable that TOCs with longer deals, such as Chiltern, or which are heavily dependent on subsidy, such as Northern, are not behaving in this way. So the question is, are most of the operators really lemmings, in which case there is no point in trying to save them from themselves, or are they prepared to take a longer term view of their businesses? At the moment, their dreadful performance suggests they are heading for oblivion over the cliff, all holding hands as they jump into the abyss.

  • Amir

    I hate these auto barriers. I can’t see why nat expressin going to install them when it is about to be kicked off its franchise. All auto barriers should be scrapped where there is a guard on board. It’s nothing short of ganing more revenue on the cheap. Like you say most people who have boarded will pay anyway and you can always charge them more of give no discounts to encourage them to buy from the ticket office. Also pen fares are in operation so you don’t need barriers!

    I hope sheff council turns down the barriers and all barriers should be taken out. A complete waste of time. You can simply double up behind someone else. Or simply buy a £1.50 ticket to the next station and then travel lot further.

  • Richard Crompton

    A couple of comments:

    Perhaps NEx East Coast wants all stations to be barriered because regular overcrowding means that ticket inspectors are unable to walk along the train because the aisle is blocked by people and luggage.

    Short termism in modern companies shows itself in many ways. By not training people, by abandoning final salary pension schemes, they show they are not interested in their long term future. I put this down to stupidity by the managers concerned. One must question the intelligence and/or motives of the senior people who appointed them.

  • John Withill

    A simple comment really – the Train Operators are strapped for cash and will resort to any means to get more money in at a time when casual suers are not travelling anywhere much and business users are conducting business by video or phone . The sooner the whole fiasco of the ‘private’ ( HO.HO ) rail companies is disolved and brought fully back into a properly funded public regime – the sooner an outbreak of common sense can be brought about … mind you look at the Govenment , or any potential new Government , none of them have a clue about what to do with the Railways in general .

    It is a very sad position – of course this time around the Tories haven’t got anything left to sell – so they have to make the railways work – maybe they’ll have to renationalise if they get in – that would make me smile , but for the fact that the fat cats in the city will be the only beneficiaries ( again ) and there will be no credible improvement or forward progress in service levels pricing system development and expansion or safety

    Regards

    JOHN WITHILL

  • RapidAssistant

    Think all of us should get together for a meet-up one day in the pub and have a good old blether about things…..I feel like I know some of you already!

  • John Withill

    Agreed – It seems to me that all any commentator is kind of singing from the same song sheet – fragmenting the industry has not worked and has cost inordinately – I can’t believe so many clever people on power failed to see the dogma and its expence in the 1990’s and that the Labour Government have screwed it all about ever since …. gob smacking inepetitude !

    JOHN

  • richard keen

    Perhaps Christian should consider whether NXEC have a point. If I were a passenger on a NXEC train having paid “mega millions” to travel, would I appreciate the overcrowding by accepting EMT passengers with the consequent inability to easily access refreshments and/or toilet. For the price of what I have just paid for an Anglo Scottish ticket I might decide next time to see if the airlines offer more comfort.

    I would also bet that EMT passengers forced to stand would not be grateful for the alternative route but moan about overcrowding.

  • Dan

    Yes, I didn’t really understand Christian’s remarks on this in his last Rail column.

    I guess we are talking about EMT travllers to Leicester and Derby here? – as EMT passngers to other destinations with Anytime and Saver type tickets have route validity on ECML anyway – so could not be stopped from travelling by NXEC, otherwise this applies to EMT Advance ticket holders of which there would have been few if any as EMT were not releasing the quotas (I know this as I was trying to buy one to rtn from London on a strike bound Sunday and they were held back from sale apart from for a few days, then they were suspended from sale again).

    I chose to buy an Advance ticket via ECML when it dawned on me there would never be any EMT Advance tikcets for sale (having made the foolish error of buying an outbound Advance on EMT for a different day before the return tickets were released – another problem with Advance Ticket selling of course but that is another story.

  • Dan

    Here’s one on the barriers debate (which I don’t take a strong view on either way) – last eve my partner was travelling Nottm – Derby in the eve peak. The service was busy so the ticket collector did not make it through the train to where she was seated (at a table for 4) until after the intermediate stop at Long Eaton.

    After my partner showed her ticket, the woman sitting next to her (at the window, so that being a clue to the gaurd that she’d probably boarded at Nottm before my partner sat next to her), bold as brass asked for a “day rtn from Long Eaton to Derby”. The woman was a smartly dressed middle aged commuter type.

    My partner was gobsmacked (too gobsmacked to shop this ticket dodger), and it either did not occur to the guard she was lying, or he simply did not have the motivation or proof for the argument.

    Rtn from Nottingham to Derby: £6 – from Long Eaton to Derby £3.50 – loss to TOC £2.50.

    But it was clear this is how the lady regularly behaved, and thought nothing of telling a bare faced lie in front of the 3 other passengers seated around her. This sort of thing is no doubt happening all the time (despite the indignation about MPs). What the heck is the point of a £2.50 fare dodge to someone who could clearly afford to pay it?

    Anyway – fact is that when barriers are introduced at Nottm she would not have been able to do this – but my fear is of course that on train staff will get ‘lazy’ about checking tickets on board when they think barriers will have done it and thus people like this will simply buy a ticket to the 1st station on the line and over ride if they can get away with it!

  • RapidAssistant

    Aye Dan – I remember a few years back they had a revenue protection swat team (much publicised in the Daily Record, if I remember rightly ) on ticket fraud in Glasgow Central, and people were caught using fake season tickets which had been done using some ingenious Adobe Photoshoppery. Yet it turned out a fair few of the offenders were fairly senior professional people who clearly didn’t have to defraud the system in such a way. And they were made a martyr of in the courts soon afterward……

    But what you say of staff laziness is indicative of what I’ve found – even on long distance routes. I remember being on a horribly overcrowded Pendolino from Euston-Glasgow (caused largely because the Carlisle service immediately before was cancelled), I was sitting right at the end of the train, and to make matters worse the train was diverted via Birmingham and Manchester which turned it into an 8 hour slog.

    My ticket wasn’t checked once – presumably because the guard couldn’t be bothered fighting his way through the aisles. I’ve kept that virgin ticket (in both senses of the word – pardon the pun) as a souvenir!

  • Dan

    Yes Rapid – I think there is an issue (and it is one of my bug bears) that when things go wrong instead of staff going out front to face the punters, and help them make relevant alternative plans as they politely check tickets – they ‘disappear’ rather than face the angry passengers fed up with delay, cancellation, no seats.

    How hard would it be to go through the train, check tickets, advise people, clear luggage off seats for those standing, and if someone has the worng ticket, politely explain it is wrong, state that under the circumstances it is not a problem, and use discretion not to XS fare them – that would be the right image for the industry to project in such circs.

    I do appreciate, though (as my post indicated) that dealing with the “great GB public” can be a thankless task.

    I wonder if people think fare evasion, (like being generous with your expenses claims) is considered fair game in this country – I think people think it is.

  • Amir

    Dan I’d like to belive what you are saying but i’d rather have ease of use than nasty auto barriers making my journey even more difficult.

    Revenue comes through Long Eaton and charges £20 a toc gain of £14 it works both ways. Why do you think singles are 10p cheaper. Someone buys a single for £9.90 a cheap day rtn is £10 someone bunks the train back again loss to toc 10p. To gain every ticket at every station wud mean barriers everywhere like London Underground. And they still have a problem with fare evasion. Like doubling up before the barrier closes.

    Or even better as you said woman doubles up at nottingham behind you. Guard doesn’t chack tickets cause people will be annoyed that they’ve just had ther tickets checks. Guard makes no commision so dosen’t bother woman gets of open station so loss to TOC £6

    At the end of the day these companies should employ more ticket inspectors on-board and pen fares should be nationwide. Sooner or later you will get caught so why worry about it.

  • The Thin Controller

    NXEC has thrown in the towel. Now what?

    My guess is that the *real* problem of this for the DfT is that they were banking on the premia from this franchise to hold up many of the others. What will they do without the money? Ah no, on the other hand, better not ask that question – too many creepy crawlies waiting to come out of the woodwork on that one.

  • Kevin

    Personally, I think that the DFT is being a bit bullish to think that the ECML can be as easily re-let as they think. Aside from the fact that when 2010 comes, the current crop of transport ministers will probably be out of office; both sides of the fence need to take a long hard look at themselves as to what they are looking to get from rail franchising. The current policy of increasing the burden on the train traveller has failed. Faced with rising fares, overcrowding, degraded levels of service and byzantine ticketing rules, they’ve voted with their feet and stayed away. The failure of GNER and NXEC has demonstrated this. There seems little point to me in granting anything to the private sector unless they are willing to take on revenue risk – that’s what private enterprise is supposed to be about after all. If you can’t make money – you go out of business. Simple as that. And is creating an artificial profit through subsidies any solution? Are we simply having private sector involvement in the railways for the sheer hell of it then?

    It all boils down to the fundamental fact that no amount of fudging or complex financial skullduggery can disguise the fact that railways are an inherently unprofitable enterprise. When will politicians finally give up and realise there is no Holy Grail of a profitable (or reasonably self-sustaining) railway industry and start treating it more like the NHS or the education system (or the road network, for that matter) – i.e a vital part of public infrastructure instead of an inconvenient burden on the taxpayer.

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