Rail 692: Command paper as bland as MacDonalds

I had expected better. Justine Greening, the transport secretary, is clearly a sharp cookie and has picked up her brief assiduously and rapidly. However, in publishing the long-awaited Command Paper, Putting the customer first, she has clearly allowed the civil servants free rein to produce a document as anodyne as a MacDonald’s hamburger without relish. Any hard decisions have been postponed until later in the year when we hear what amounts of money will be available for the railways in the 2014-19 Network Rail Control Period (CP5).

It was rather foolish of Ms Greening to try to pretend that the issue fares could be neutralised by putting a headline on the covering press release which said: ‘Ending inflation-busting rail fare rises’. The cynical national newspaper correspondents sitting next to me at the press conference were starting to write the ‘fares could rise’ story before she had even left the room to appear in Parliament.

The nonsensical nature of this promise was quickly exposed by her failure to answer the question by Peter Woodman, the veteran Press Association transport correspondent, about when the fares rises would end. She was vague and merely suggested it might be after the results of the consultation process on fares and ticketing launched at the same time, or might even not happen until after the £3.5bn ‘savings’ which the industry needs to make by the end of the decade.

Indeed, the government is in some difficulty on fares which are now seen as just as unpopular as fuel tax rises. Clearly, the government did not want to be saying that fares will rise even faster than before and therefore any change to the system is supposed to be revenue neutral. The idea, though, is to follow the McNulty report’s suggestion that there should be higher fares for those travelling at peak times. Most of those people, however, are season ticket holders, and hitting them in the pocket is not electorally sensible to the Tories – look how Boris Johnson is now struggling in the mayoral election because of his above inflation fares rises. Therefore the idea was honed down to raising fares for those travelling at the peak peak, as it were.  This might make sense to someone like Sir Roy McNulty who has not understood the operational considerations of running a railway, but the practical difficulties of such as scheme would be immense.

Ms Greening also mentioned the idea of having season tickets which were tailored to part time workers who only used the trains two or three times per week. All these ideas lead to the notion of ‘smart ticketing’ one of the other suggestions highlighted in the Command Paper. Clearly smart ticketing would enable such flexible arrangements, and Ms Greening highlighted the need for extending ‘Oyster-style smartcard payment options’ even if the contradictions over extending Oyster, mentioned in my last column, mean that there are likely to be delays while the government sorts out its own scheme. There were, too, some rather daft suggestions, like selling tickets in libraries (if there are any left, one might jest), given that the complexity of the ticketing arrangements make even the Dewey classification system seem simple.

This brings us to the wider contradiction at the core of the whole initiative which was originally stimulated by the desire to move away from the ‘micromanagement’ of the railways by Marsham Street. These suggestions pouring out of government are precisely the type of initiative that in a conventional business would be generated by the companies themselves rather than government. Decisions over closing ticket offices or even selling them in libraries, would in any other business be made by the retailers – the train operators – rather than government.  That demonstrates, yet again, the special nature of the railways which are a public service, something that is often misunderstood.

The intractable nature of the rail industry is why, too, the franchise reform got lost in the Command Paper. Remember this was a major initiative announced soon after the Coalition took office and involved an extensive consultation exercise with franchisees and other stakeholders. Remember,  there was to be a new way of letting franchises, according to Theresa Villiers, the No2 in the Department, at the time of the launch: ‘We want to see a stronger focus on the quality of outcomes for passengers, giving more flexibility to the professionals who run our railways to apply innovation and enterprise in working out the best way to deliver those outcomes.’

All this has now come to naught. When I asked the civil servants about franchise reform, they said that the idea had been dropped and rather than a blueprint, any changes would be reflected in the Invitations to Tender for franchises. In other words, it will be horses for courses. Effectively, that suggests a failure to answer the Wolmar question on the purpose of the whole franchising process which drives up costs for little benefit. Clearly, ministers were unable to come up with a coherent answer to the question, so saved themselves the embarrassment of publishing a franchising document.

The core of the Paper – there were two other papers on fares and decentralisation which will, I hope, be considered in future columns if there is space – is the aim to cut £3.5bn out of the rail industry’s total spending of around £11bn by the end of the decade. Already, just over half of that is earmarked to come from Network Rail, and there may be suggestions, coming out soon, from the Office of Rail Regulation, that even more could be squeezed from that source. Assuming that it can’t, the rest would have to come from operations, rolling stock leasing, staff and other bits and bobs. Let’s spell this out categorically: it can’t be done. Far too much of the excess spending is entrenched in the industry – wages are high because of fears of strikes and the result of competition for drivers, restrictive practices such as guards on the SWT network have not been challenged, Network Rail spends around £1bn on debt servicing annually, costly procedures in developing schemes are difficult to change, the fragmentation of the industry leads to compensation payments, widespread use of consultants is expensive and so on. Nowhere in the McNulty report is there any clear detailed roadmap of how to make savings; nor is there in the Command Paper. The big options such as cutting services, closing stations or allowing track conditions to deteriorate are simply ruled out because they would be too unpopular. The spectre of Beeching hangs over the railway and any politician daft enough to posit the notion of cutbacks

When I suggested that it was unclear where the savings were coming from, I was roundly slapped down by La Greening.  We were allowed one question each in the press briefing on the Command Paper and I had asked her where the £3.5 bn annual savings would come from in the rail industry as it seemed an incredibly high proportion of the overall costs and I had not found any details in the McNulty report on the industry’s finances published last year. ‘Well’ she said, staring hard at me, ‘I’m glad you didn’t write the paper as it is clear that these saving can be made’. In fact, the paper clearly does not set these out. It is still of vague commitments and a strong emphasis on the Rail Delivery Group (which I wrote about in Rail 689).  Here again, there is a clear contradiction. Savings are dependent on the operators cutting costs. But none of them will bid on the basis, say, of cutting wages or making unrealistic assumptions and in any case, these savings can only be made on future franchises.

There is an irony in all this. The coalition government has actually been very supportive of the railways, continuing the massive investment programme under Labour. You only have to see the number of completely revamped stations in London along with Reading and Birmingham, as well as the commitment to HS2 and the Intercity Express Programme (the new trains), to see that the railways have had a good deal under the Coalition. Sure, the rolling stock programme has stalled and there are concerns about fares, but the investment programme is impressive, even if I doubt the claim that is the biggest since Victorian times can be substantiated, given the massive modernisation programme of the 1950s (launched, interestingly, by a Tory government). The risk, however, is that in the crazy and undoubtedly impossible search for these massive savings, support for a successful industry is lost.



Keep it simple, save money


While on the theme of money saving, Here’s a neat idea from a reader, Gerard Eastick, who lives alongside the East Coast main line and says ‘I see trains in blue, trains in silver and trains that look as if they have borrowed the Tesco Value corporate identity.’ He asks, quite pertinently, ‘is there any chance that someone somewhere might start a campaign to standardise rail livery across the UK?’

Not only would that save money but it would improve the look of the railways. We have been here before. There was a period in the more extreme deregulating period of the 1980s when the Tories allowed London buses to be any colour. We got ghastly blue liveries and even a bus company called Grey-Green, until Steve Norris, the junior transport minister, put a stop to it by mandating that all buses should be red, one of London’s emblematic characteristics.  Already, London Overground trains have a livery that does not publicise their operator (originally MTR Laing) and is the better for it. Think how much money would be saved in not having to relivery trains with temporary brands. And we would be saved garish colour schemes – remember One? Or conversely, think how much it will cost if, as many expect, Virgin loses its West Coast franchise. So here’s one idea not in the McNulty report that could definitely save money. As Mr Eastick says, ‘The essence of rail travel is going from A to B. Nobody cares who is running it.’



  • I’ve always thought public transport branding was, in many cases, rather pointless.  I live near a London General depot and many of the buses proclaim something bland like “A member of the Go-Ahead Group.” 

    Well who cares?  In London I just care what route it is and where it’s going to take me.  The fares are the same; as is the availability of travelcards.  A few years ago (just before Boris) Transport for London even went as far as starting to mandate that buses in London must start being all over than red – prior to that operators could have a sliver of colour.  Now new buses in London are getting giant roundels on them and the operator logo is being shoved to one side.  It’s a natural conclusion.

    On a less London centric approach, Scotrail has also been given a new vendor independent livery – just a few First group logos.

    Meanwhile in Northern England, Northern have been busy putting “A Serco and Abellio Joint Venture” on their trains.  To which most people will, if anything, go “Who and Who?” 

  • Chiltern User

    Christian’s summary of why McNulty’s ‘plan’ to take £3.5 billion a year (!) out orf the industry’s costs is unworkable is perfect in one sentence:

    “Far too much of the excess spending is entrenched in the industry –
    wages are high because of fears of strikes and the result of competition
    for drivers, restrictive practices such as guards on the SWT network
    have not been challenged, Network Rail spends around £1bn on debt
    servicing annually, costly procedures in developing schemes are
    difficult to change, the fragmentation of the industry leads to
    compensation payments, widespread use of consultants is expensive and so

    Surely Justine Greening knows this?

    Good to remind everyone again that Network Rail is spending £1 billion a year just servicing its debt. This debt just keeps on growing.

  • Greg Tingey

    And, of course, stopping the iEP before it wastes unspeakable quantities of money …..

  • Back to the future.

    One of the reasons for BR’s blue and grey period was a desire to get away from the multitude of pre-nationalisation and regional liveries.

    After some years, someone got bored with that and we had the era of sector liveries which were further refined (if that’s the right word) in the pre-privatisation train operator’s flight’s of fancy.

    Since privatisation, liveries have changed both on the whim of the operator or because a new operator has taken over and feels the need to “stamp their identity” all over the place, no matter how garish (think First’s “Barbie” livery, or maybe not).

    Now it is being suggested that the TOCs return to a single colour scheme.

    As Andrew Bowden says, most transport liveries are pointless. Only the most geekish of trainspotters, and the TOCs “brand managers” are even faintly bothered.

    If this suggestion for a single livery is carried through, can I suggest and basic mid to dark blue with grey panels around the windows on non-suburban stock?

  • We’re already getting an element of single livery in the South East.  C2c have had their trains repainted in white with coloured doors.  Southeastern’s already were white with coloured doors.  And then National Express East Anglia started repainting in white with coloured doors, and Greater Anglia are doing the same. 

    True that for C2C and Anglia the reason for doing that is that trains need repainting and the franchises are won’t last that long, but if someone could start extending that thinking, we’d be part way there.

  • Skywalker

    I’ve long thought that trains should be painted a standard colour with the operator being allowed to change small stickers (similar to Londonu00a0buses). The amount of money wasted on perpetual re-branding is outrageous. I’m glad someone as influential as Christian Wolmar has commented on this too.

  • RapidAssistant

    And while we are at it can we get rid of some of the ghastly typefaces used for station signage and go back to plain old Rail Alphabet??  (based on Helevetica) – it is good enough for countless other rail networks and metro systems around the world. 

  • RapidAssistant

    Once again, Scotland takes the lead by having a standard livery and corporate identity for station signage.  First are only allowed to display their logo on trains, not dictate the livery.

  • Keith

    It always seems to be forgotten that other cities had simple corporate bus colours as well – Manchester Orange for example.  I agree about the lack of Helvetica these days – many stations look like a trendy ‘Design Agency’ has siphoned off its own bit of Rail spending.

  • The reason Manchester had orange was because it had a single dominant operator – the GMPTE, and the GMPTE went with orange.  The few local independents like Maynes of Manchester had their own livery.

    London’s only managed to keep hold of its single livery because it is a co-ordinated system.  Bus companies bid for contracts and TfL set conditions.  Red being one of them.

  • Christian Wolmar

    Yes, but remember for a brief period, even London had buses in other colours, until red was belatedly re-established

  • They did.  When I first moved to London in 1999 there were still buses roving around central London in bright yellow, and the suburbs even later.  But that was because no one had mandated a livery in the original contracts – as I recall that only started coming in when MPs started making a fuss.

    Indeed, it’s noticeable how more red London’s buses have become.  London General’s older buses have a grey skirt; Metroline’s a blue one.  Stagecoach at one point had their three-coloured swipe on its buses.  But new buses have been all over red for a while now, and a London Buses roundel is the latest addition.

    In a few years someone who has been away from London for 30 years may not even notice there was a change!

  • Christian Schmidt

    But note where you have a standardised non-corporate appearance (London, ScotRail), you also have a single ticketing system. If all UK trains look the same (or at least all all InterCity, South-East, Regional, Welsh), people would expect the same ticketing conditions and service standrads (e.g. type of food supply).

  • They should have the same ticketing conditions.  And, frankly, the same standards of service.

  • Paul Holt

    Final paragraph: “‘The essence of rail travel is going from A to B. Nobody cares who is running it.’”.   Actually, the essence of travel, whether by rail or otherwise, is going from A to B.   The ‘how’ might be rail, road, air or other.   No-one really cares so long as it is reliable and frequent.