It is not often that the railways are mentioned at Prime Minister’s Questions but on March 5th they came up from an unexpected source, the veteran Labour MP Jack Straw who has rarely expressed any previous interest in the industry. Mr Straw asked about the proposed transfer of nine diesel multiple units from TransPennine Express to Chiltern which would represent a loss of an eighth of TPE’s rolling stock and leave the operator having to make cancellations on trains that are overcrowded.
Mr Straw received short shrift from David Cameron, as well as jeers from Tory MPs who pointed out that while he is MP for Blackburn, he actually lives in the area served by Chiltern trains. The fact that this should be a cause of mirth for the government MPs merely serves to demonstrate why much of the public holds politicians in contempt, as did Mr Cameron’s complete ignorance about the subject. Clearly not briefed, the PM blustered that he would ‘look carefully at the point the right hon. Gentleman raises’. He then went on to make a point that had absolutely no relevance about the plans to electrify ‘the trans-Pennine railway line, which will make a big difference,’ then mentioned the northern hub, ‘which will also make a difference’ and then, embarrassingly talked about Charlbury station which may indeed be in the Chilterns but is in First Great Western rather than Chiltern Trains territory.
The key point about a large number of rail passengers between Manchester and Hull losing their trains which are currently already overcrowded was completely ignored. It is not surprising that Cameron would or could not answer the question which raises yet more doubts about the government’s competence on matters concerning the railway. The proposed transfer of these trains from Transpennine to Chiltern is a direct consequence of the fiasco over the West Coast franchise which first emerged in the summer of 2012 and still hangs like a black cloud over the whole industry, combined with the dithering over the future of franchises in the north..
The issue arises because TPE is not being allowed to sign any rolling stock leasing deals beyond April 2015, which is when the current franchise was supposed to end – though last year it was extended to February 2016. Chiltern, which is due to start a new Oxford service, is desperate to acquire some trains and made an offer to Porterbrook, the rolling stock company which owns the nine sets, that was difficult to refuse – a five year deal, rather than the limited extension that would have been on offer from TPE. Not surprisingly, Porterbrook, a commercial company with shareholders to keep happy, has gone with the Chiltern deal.
This, of course, ties in very well with the theme of my column two issues ago about the Rail Delivery Group. If, as it is supposed to be, it were interested in the long term – or in fact medium term – issues facing the industry, it should have set up a meeting some time ago involving the Department, the rolling stock companies and the train operators to sort out the medium term rolling stock needs of the industry. These cannot be sorted out by the market because of the combination of three factors: the shortage of DMUs across the network, the electrification of parts of the network that will displace DMUs and the franchise fiasco which has led to the creation of a series of short term deals that make long term planning impossible. In a rational world, the RDG would have been the perfect organisation to bang heads together to ensure that this type of situation would not have arisen but the roscos are, as mentioned in my column, not members of the RDG.
So therefore what of the Department. Well, guess what? As reported in the news pages, the Department has just reorganised itself, also as a consequence of the West Coast fiasco. In April, it will establish a Rail Executive that is responsible for a wide range of railway policies, including major projects, the franchising programme, franchise management and rail strategy. The franchising aspects will be transferred to a new Office of Rail Passenger Services (why did they not just call it OPRAF and be done with it!) which will be established in the autumn. But there is going to be considerable instability and upheaval for some time to come as the eventual idea is to create a Rail Delivery Authority (will that be related to the Rail Delivery Group? Ed – no idea guvnor) in 2016.
So do not expect any coherence about this for some time to come. Instead, watch out for some subterfuge to stop Chiltern poaching these new trains which would be politically a disaster for the coalition. To the public, especially up north, it would just be the theft of the crumbs left after the pie is eaten since there is already a perception that all the goodies are concentrated in London and the south east given the massive investment in Crossrail and Thameslink. So the idea of despatching trains that are heavily used on a line in the north to provide a new service for the already well provided for residents of Oxford and various south east stations is politically unpalatable. Just imagine if trains were taken off, say, the Dorking line and sent up to Manchester? There would be an outcry.
At one point, there was a transport secretary able to understand the way this whole process worked and, indeed, work out the necessary cascades. That was Andrew – Lord – Adonis whose great achievement was stopping the purchase of new diesel trains for the local Great Western services and instead instituting an industry wide cascade triggered by electrification of the lines out of Paddington. There is, sadly, no minister of this calibre available to sort out the mess.
There is, too, a longer term problem. Ian Brown, the former Managing Director of London Rail and the person responsible for creating London Overground, writing in the latest issue of Railwatch, the magazine of Railfuture (of which I am president) warns that there will be a long term shortage of DMUs, despite the various cascades which are likely to occur. He points out that the government is waiting for the cascades from electrification to sort out the shortage of diesel units. Brown suggests this is not going to happen because the process is so slow and says, instead, that ‘we need a more ambitious approach from the government which should approve a build of approximately 120 vehicles per hear, starting next year’. This is because, he argues, there is a need to accommodate current growth levels, especially on what he calls the loss-making ‘social’ railway and would need to be sustained for around eight years ‘before any coherent and meaningful electrification cascade kicks in’. Of course, the side effect of this would be to ensure that the hated Pacers are displaced once and for all, rather than lasting well into the next decade if no diesel units are built.
All this demonstrates that when there is so much complexity involving so many different parties and investment, there is only one agency that has the requisite powers and ability to control such a complicated process – and that’s the government. As one key industry source put it to me, ‘the Department plays around with this, sometimes intervening and sometimes saying the market should determine the outcome. In fact, this is dishonest. The government has to create the framework and ensure that all the relevant players know exactly what is happening. Otherwise we will just get this Chiltern/TPE type situation happening time and again’.
The power of Twitter
I was heading for Tewkesbury on Friday night from Paddington a couple of weeks ago to give my talk on the Transsiberian railway (happy to give it to any railway societies, by the way) which necessitated changes at both Swindon and Gloucester. The 15 30 ex Paddington was running late as a result of a previous cancellation and was incredibly full. I was going to miss my connection at Swindon which would then have resulted in me arriving only just in time for the meeting.
There were half a dozen people around me who were also seeking to make the same connection which meant that on the train there were likely to be probably many more. I decided to tweet our plight including the @fgw feed in my message, hoping that perhaps someone would notice that there were a lot of people who would be delayed if the connection were not held.
At first the response was ‘as a rule FGW do not hold trains’ even though it was only a matter of a few minutes. But then, perhaps as a result of encouraging other people to tweet, the decision changed and the guard announced over the tannoy that the connection would be held. I reckon that at least 50 and possibly more people made the Gloucester train as a result.
It would be interesting to know how this eminently sensible decision came about and whether it was partly down to Twitter – and indeed whether it cost FGW money in terms of delay attribution minutes charged by Network Rail.