Merseyrail topped the recent Which? report poll on train companies, something that it has done regularly as it also was deemed the best franchise in the larger National Passenger Survey which has a rather different methodology.
This success is often dismissed by rivals as a quirk of the franchise pattern. Merseyrail is a discrete railway, with no freight or other operators cluttering up the tracks, it is all electric, it operates short journeys, there is little overcrowding and scousers are a tolerant bunch. Therefore, critics say, Merseyrail gets an easy ride which explains its high scores which hover above the 95 per cent PPM (Punctuality and Performance Measure), the best franchise in the country. .
On the other hand, as Maarten Spaargaren, the Managing Director of Merseyrail, the trains are more than thirty years old, the trains are heavily used (though not often overcrowded) and frequent, and while there has been investment, there is plenty of scope for more. Therefore the success of the service cannot be dismissed as mere good fortune.
In fact, Merseyrail’s secret is simple. It is an old fashioned railway – in more ways than one. It has staffed stations – all but 4 of its 67 have someone on duty during the whole period of operation – it has guards on every train, and inevitably this means it requires heavy subsidy – some £70m, representing about the same as passenger income.
Part of the secret, too, is that it is a local railway or as Mr Spaargaren puts it, ‘a service delivered by local staff and for local people.’ As the result of an early round of devolution, Merseytravel, the local passenger transport executive – now called, in modern gobbledegook, an integrated transport authority – rather than the Department for Transport (or at the time the Strategic Rail Authority) was given the right to let the local franchise. The result was a 25 year deal won by a combined bid by Serco and Abellio (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dutch national railway company, Nederlandse Spoorwegen) which started in 2003. This, according to Mr Spaargaren, is a far better arrangement than having a service run from Whitehall: ‘If there is a lot of snow on the tracks, I don’t have to persuade a civil servant 200 miles away that we should run a limited service.’
In fact, while the contract is shared equally, Serco has been somewhat of a sleeping partner and the company is very much run by the Dutch, as testified by the nationality of Mr Spaargaren who has worked for Nederlandse Spoorwegen since 1998. Therefore it is not surprising that many of the innovations are very Dutch in character. Most stations have sheltered bike parking, a third have secure cycling storage and other efforts are being made to encourage cyclists. The trains can carry bikes for free at any time, even in the rush hour, the company has introduced, together with its other franchises at Greater Anglia and Northern, a ‘bike to go’ scheme. This involves paying a fee of £10 annually to be able to pick up a bike at one of the designated stations and use it for up to 24 hours for just £3 80 – this is very similar to schemes available at many Dutch and German stations. The scheme started in the late summer and so far has only had 250 subscribers but Mr Spaargaren is confident numbers will increase as the availability of these hire bikes becomes better known.
The other excellent idea copied from Holland is to create a series of combined ticket office and convenience store outlets called Mtogo, linked too with Costa Coffee. This is one of those ideas that seem a no-brainer and yet the railway elsewhere has been slow to endorse it. Yet, ticket staff need extra training and experience, but that should not be such a barrier to a scheme that could be adopted throughout the railway.
Another aspect of Merseyrail’s service that could be called old-fashioned but is probably sensible was the decision not to operate all-night services at weekends, despite some demand from local business and the fact that the network maintenance would allow it. Bus operators have in the past tried this three times but have lost money Mr Spaargaren says: ‘We could do it in theory but in practice it would cost a lot as you would not only have to pay for extra operational staff, but more police would be needed given the likelihood of anti-social behaviour late at night’. He also points to the fact that Merseyside has more taxis per head of population than any other British city, suggesting that this could result in job losses in an area with already high unemployment. This holistic line of thinking shows the extent to which the company is imbedded in the area it serves.
The contrast with the capital could not be greater. London Underground has announced that it is closing all its ticket offices because only 3 per cent of travellers use them with the consequent loss of nearly 1,000 jobs. That was announced by Boris Johnson in a very aggressive way, clearly seeking a confrontation with the unions which he duly got – and to his surprise found that many Londoners, quite possibly a majority, actually sided with Bob Crow.
That’s because people like the idea of staff at stations. OK London Underground management had promised that there would still be someone to help people use the machines at all times but no one quite believes them. While it is right that it does not make much sense to keep ticket offices at relatively little used stations in the suburbs, why did not London Underground and Boris Johnson come up with more imaginative schemes like turning some of these into shops which could also double as ticket offices?
In fact, London will retain ticket offices at key busy stations, notably the big terminuses but also tourist magnets like Piccadilly Circus and Tottenham Court Road. Peter Hendy, the boss of Transport for London, explained to me that the ‘enhanced enquiry offices’ at those key stations will actually have the ability to sell tickets. This merely adds fuel to the notion that Mr Johnson was more interested in sparking a row with Mr Crow and his chums than on actually saving Londoners money and creating a better service. But then perhaps I am biased!
Interestingly, Merseyrail was once at the forefront of the idea that the track and infrastructure should be merged. In the event, the idea was killed off by opposition from the local trade unions who were worried about the break up of Network Rail and it seems that vertical integration is no longer on the agenda. However, Mr Spaargaren is keen to see a closer relationship with Network Rail and indeed there is a sharing of ‘key performance indicators’ – and targets – for matters such as staff assaults and what are called ‘close calls’ – potential safety incidents.
While it is clear that Merseyrail provided a good service given that it does consistently well in these surveys – and other companies regularly do badly – one has to take some of their findings with a pinch of salt. For example, more than 20 per cent of respondents commended the toilets on Merseyrail trains. One problem. There are no toilets on its trains.
RDG on the rack
I have had a good response from various industry players about my column last week on the Rail Delivery Group not least from some people who felt I was insufficiently hard-hitting. In particular, there is considerable anger within the industry about the criteria needed to join the RDG (a turnover of more than £100m) which means membership is currently limited to just 12 players. As one respondent put it in Orwellian terms, ‘it seems that in the railways some people are more equal than others’. This person added that it seemed extraordinary that the big engineering companies which do so much on the railways are not allowed a look-in.
Another endorsed my suggestion that the strange make-up of the RDG emerges from a failure to get to grips with the structural issues of the industry. Instead of actually bashing heads together and working out a compromise that would have led to an effective cross-industry body, the required tough decisions were not taken. So we have an added layer of complexity to the industry which will do nothing to enhance its efficiency.