Rail 847: Get the Department out of the rail business

With Labour trying to work out its plans for renationalisation and the current system in a state of uncertainty given the problems with franchising and Network Rail’s addiction to overspending and the loss of its chief executive, there is currently much debate about the structure of the railways.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of nationalisation which are the subject of furious debate, there is one point on which railway managers and politicians from all parts of the spectrum agree: the worst possible structure for the railway is to be run from Whitehall. Yet, that is what is happening and it is no surprise that many of the worst decisions affecting passengers have come from a toxic mix of ‘generalist’ civil servants who work at the Department for a couple of years with little understanding of the railways and ministers whose tenure tends to be equally short.

Take, for example, an issue that is now exercising the national media, but one which I and other rail journalists flagged up ages ago, the hard seats on new trains. I first experienced these on the 700s on Thameslink which I use to get down to Brighton, a journey of some 70 minutes which is rather too long to sit in a seat that you certainly would not offer to a guest at home. The error has now been repeated on the long distance Hitachi trains with equally uncomfortable seats, something that I noticed when sitting on the prototype a year ago at the Newton Aycliffe factory. When I asked the PR people about them, they just mumbled something about it being only a trial and that it was not the final product. Yet, amazingly, these bottom bruisers have been retained.

There is, in fact, a whole litany of things wrong the Hitachi trains, starting with the mad idea that they come in units of four or five and therefore require double staffing when working in pairs. Overall, however, the main madness is to have bought these trains in the most complicated Private Finance Initiative deal that burdens the train operators – and really the government – with a 27.5 year deal that is the most expensive train procurement contract ever. As any fool knows, varying PFI contracts is extremely expensive and already the Department has had to fork out £300m to put in extra diesel engines to those trains which did not have them fitted already. Now, after the row over the seats escalates and people start avoiding rail travel because of them, they will have to be replaced at far greater cost than the savings made when the decision to buy the cheapest seats produced by Fainsa was made. It is no wonder that PFI is now going out of fashion.

What these two train contracts have in common is that they were both negotiated by the Department for Transport with lots of interference from ministers. What genius, for example, thought it was a good idea not to fit wi-fi onto the Thameslink 700 trains at a time when access to the internet is now expected by rail passengers, especially regular commuters? One can almost feel sorry for the train operators as every time a passenger complains about the hard seats but actually it is ministers and civil servants who should be held accountable but never will be.

There are numerous other examples where decisions by ministers have led to what are called ‘sub-optimal’ outcomes ranging from failing to put in additional platforms at Manchester Piccadilly to accommodate more services following completion of the Ordsall Curve to the decision to go for bi-mode trains. It is too late to save the Great Western and East Coast from this disaster, but it is not too late for the Midland Mainline where no final decision has been made. Lilian Greenwood, the excellent chairwoman of the Commons Transport Committee, told me recently that there seemed to be no difference in terms of the all important benefit-cost ratio for full electrification or using bi-mode. I am indebted to a short paper by Bob Poynter for pointing out why introducing bi-mode on the line may seem sensible in the short term but is utterly wrong in the long term. He points out:

  1. The average cost of recent electric train orders in the UK has been £1.2m per vehicle; for the bi-mode trains for Transpennine Express it is £2.36m per vehicle. On that basis, replacing the long-distance fleet of 223 vehicles used by East Midlands Trains with bi-mode rather than electric trains would cost an additional £258.7m, a good proportion of the cost of electrification
  2. Electric trains are significantly more reliable than diesels with electric Siemens trains , for example, managing 100,000 miles per 3-minute delay, four times the diesel average.
  3. Electric train maintenance costs are typically 33 per cent lower than a comparable diesel train and fuel costs 45 per cent lower.
  4. The lower weight of electric trains results in less track wear, reducing track maintenance costs.
  5. The major cost escalation and delay to the Great Western Electrification Project is no basis for assessing future schemes.

All of this seems unarguable. And of course, electrification would show that ministers are serious about the north south divide rather than merely misusing is to justify HS2.

Oddly enough, these instances of wrongheaded ministerial interference back up the case for renationalisation. If the railways were integrated and brought under the control of an arms-length state-owned body, with legally guaranteed independence from government and, as now, with a five year budget horizon, it would have the status and the clout to make decisions for the industry as a whole. My beef about privatisation has always been that it was accompanied by the even more disastrous fragmentation.

There is just a small counterpoint to this rant against ministerial control. Occasionally there have been times particularly competent transport ministers and even civil servants have made a difference. It is invidious to name civil servants but in terms of ministers, Steve Norris, Alistair Darling and Lord Adonis all achieved much in their time and several others deserve credit for trying to, at least understand the railway. Nevertheless, they are the exception that proves the rule.

Future ministers will serve the railway best by developing a long term strategy, bringing stability and constancy to the industry and appointing the right people in to key posts. They should not start off, as Jo (surely men are called Joe?) Johnson – who I thought was more sensible than his infamous brother – by making ridiculous pronouncements on phasing out diesel only trains by 2040 just a few weeks after coming into office.

 

 

Time for a railway boss in charge of Network Rail

 

I got rebuked by my old friend Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail, after, on hearing of Mark Carne’s intended departure as chief executive, I tweeted out that it was time for an experienced railway manager to be appointed to the job. Andrew Haynes, ex of South West Trains, and Nicola Shaw, ex of almost everything, have already been mentioned

Hendy has gossamer-thin skin at times and I have been at the wrong end of his tweets and messages before.  But his response in a series of now deleted tweets suggested I had touched a nerve. He responded first by saying that ‘Leadership is about experience, ability and personality. The backhanded criticism of Mark that he somehow wasn’t as good as he could have been if he’d done 30 years on the railway is quite unfounded. He was given a bloody mess and has sorted it out extraordinarily well.’ While I appreciate that Carne was dealt a difficult hand and he has tackled some of the problems well, the notion that Network Rail’s failings have all been sorted out is, well, laughable.

Carne refused to recognise that the excessive outsourcing in the organisation has resulted in a lack of skills which is at the root of its difficulties in keeping down costs. He seems to have shifted on this issue recently when he recognised in my post Xmas interview with him that the organisation lacked project management capability (Rail 844), but that is only after years of failing to address the issue.

Then, clearly warming to the theme, Hendy added: ‘I feel the same way about transport journalists – you long for one who deals in facts, not opinions, and has detailed knowledge, like whether HSTs have toilets that discharge on the track or not.’ I think that was a reference to my mistaken and over-optimistic belief that HSTs had all been fitted with retention tanks but clearly Hendy thought I ought to be an expert on what happens to sh*t which, I confess, I am not.

He next made a point about safety, saying ‘And the traditional tolerance of many railway people to a safety regime that has tolerated multiple deaths and serious injuries every year could only it seems have been challenged and auctioned by someone from outside that community. Same on diversity.’ Frankly, I think that is an insult to the generations of railway people who have contributed to making the railways the safest they have ever been and far safer than other forms of transport. I have never met a railway manager who does not put safety first. On diversity, too, Carne has not been the first to highlight that the rail industry has done but deserves credit for constantly raising the issue.

My principal point, however, was not to criticise or praise Carne but to point out that any railway rookie will need, like Carne, to spend months touring round the network learning the ropes whilst an old hand will be able to hit the road running. Surely, Hendy cannot argue with the point that things need to start happening fast on the railway to prevent the system degenerating into chaos.

 

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