Rail 427: Plan is not the ‘full monty’, but there’s enough to excite hope

The SRA’s much-vaunted Strategic Plan does at least propose some short and medium-term measures to improve the railway, but CHRISTIAN WOLMAR warns it has two potential weaknesses: lack of longterm vision and no guarantee the private sector will cough up its share of the cash.

The Strategic Plan is a bit of a damp squib but that was to be expected. Sir Alastair Morton, the former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, had sat on it for even longer than King Penguins keep their eggs warm and his successor, Richard Bowker, was right to bring something out within weeks of taking up the job in order, as he put it, to draw a line in the sand. The hope is that 2001 will be seen as the year of debacle (presumably following 2000 which was the year of Hatfield), and that 2002 will turn over a new leaf.

Let’s look at the pluses first. The most important is that there is actually a plan. It may not be anything like the Full Monty but does, at least, set out both some short and medium-term measures for improving the railway. Of course, most of these were known already and the plan has merely brought them together with a more tightly defined timetable than the ridiculous wish list set out in the incoherent Strategic Agenda published last year.

There does, too, seem to be a sense of urgency in the plan stimulated, no doubt, by rail’s sudden emergence at the top of the political agenda. (Health warning: The railways will soon be supplanted on that agenda by other domestic issues and it is then that Mr Bowker and others in the industry will have to keep on their toes by ensuring that the rail plans remain on course.) The idea of a rail performance fund – again not entirely new – to ensure there are some quick wins for operators to up their game, is a good one, although it leaves a slight sour taste in the mouth for the SRA to be coughing up more cash for the operators to do their job properly.

The other important measure is that the SRA will take on the development of major projects before they are handed out to the private sector. This is essential. The fiasco over the East Coast Main Line showed the fundamental flaws in the approach taken by Sir Alastair. The state’s role is to set the parameters for the future of the railway. That cannot be a market function simply because so much Government money will be involved and the railways are such a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure.

The issue of major projects, however, brings us neatly on to the problems with the plan. The plan is predicated on a large amount of private funding. It is daft quibbling about the precise figure because the numbers are so huge and will be spent over such a long period that the odd billion or two is bound to go astray. Broadly, the plan expects around £35bn from both the private and public sectors.

The Government’s money is largely assured because it was already set out in the ten-year plan, although priorities could change. The private sector contribution is, of course, mere guesswork and this is where the plan may unravel. It is not the takeover of Railtrack which is the problem as that has not really deterred investors, whatever the right-wing City commentators might argue.

No, the difficult task is getting the structure right in order to attract that investment. (Let me leave aside, for the moment, my view that the problems of the railway cannot be fundamentally sorted out while Railtrack remains separate from the operations.) The key problem is over risk. The private sector is very risk-averse and, in reality, the Government has to take on the bulk of the risk if it is to attract private finance. The Treasury, I understand, is prepared to underwrite the risk, but it is desperate to find a way to ensure that this does not mean the cost of projects remains on the Government’s balance sheet and therefore counts as part of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement.

This issue of shedding risk is likely to add further complexity to an already very complicated situation with the Special Purpose Vehicle concept dreamt up by Sir Alastair. Look at what has happened to the first SPV, the scheme to improve South Central lines, particularly to add capacity to the London-Brighton route. After six months, the scheme was put into suspension in November by its partners – Bechtel, GoVia (the new franchisee) and Railtrack – because of the latter’s collapse into administration. But after a lot of work and millions of pounds, it had only achieved level two of the five that mark the progress of schemes from drawing board to construction, and the SRA’s refusal to become actively involved had already caused difficulties.

Mr Bowker, who has a history of deal making (though I suspect he is probably something of a virgin when it comes to dealing with Government departments, which proved Sir Alastair’s undoing) knows that the SRA must have an ongoing involvement in these projects. Therefore, there will now be at least four parties involved – NuTrak, the SRA, a project manager, the franchisee and possibly even a couple of engineering companies. The future of the whole plan rests on the ability of the SRA to attract, reasonably quickly, such consortia and let out contracts to them.

Don’t bet your hat on it. It is difficult not to argue that all this was so much simpler in the days of British Rail and that the best way to develop projects would be for the SRA not only to draw up the scheme, but to provide, with Government cash, much or even all of the funding. I know this sounds terribly Old Labour, but the more one looks at the mess the railways are in, the clearer it is that the plethora of organisations and the complexity of the structure are at the root of most of the problems. Of course, it would be necessary to attract some private money, but the SRA would be able to push through the scheme much more quickly.

Given that the railways are getting over twice the amount of Government cash BR ever received, could not more progress be made simply by spending that money effectively rather than drawing up complex schemes whose cost is hugely increased through payments to lawyers, accountants and all the other bêtes noires identified by Mr Bowker (who is, uh, an accountant). I remember covering the Jubilee Line Extension fiasco for The Independent in the early 1990s when the whole project was delayed for a year to attract around £100m of private finance from the Canary Wharf developers, Olympia & York, a sum far outweighed by the cost of the delay. And, incidentally, the money from O&Y has still not been paid.

My other major quibble with the plan is that there is no long-term vision. The section on that is half a page of platitudes which start with the memorable sentence: “There is clear evidence (from where? Mystic Wolmar, perhaps?) that the railway will have an increasingly important role after 2010” and goes on to say that the SRA wants to see a “safer, bigger, better” railway.

Surely, after nearly three years, the SRA could do better than that, with, perhaps, a bit of analysis on what the railway in the 21st century is for and what its strengths and weaknesses are likely to be. The good news is that Mr Bowker is planning to remedy this lack of forward thinking by appointing a planning director whose remit will be to think long-term. That is very welcome. The French, after all, did not get their TGVs because one morning the director of SNCF woke up saying they would be a good idea. They got them through a lengthy planning process which started with a big idea. Let’s hope the next SRA plan will involve developing some grand plans and how to realise them.

‘Mirror’ doesn’t let facts spoil story

The Mirror missed the chance of a good story during the height of the recent rail controversy and demonstrated, yet again, the extent to which the tabloid press sees the railways as a punchbag. Commendably, on January 9, it sent reporters to take a rail journey on each of the 26 operators’ services.

Predictably, the coverage the next day was wholly negative. “One amazingly dreadful day” screamed the front page, and continued “half the trains were late, one was cancelled and most were either overcrowded, filthy, rudely staffed, stinking or strewn with graffiti.” “Scandal,” said the picture caption, showing a not very crowded train on the way to Cardiff with a few people standing.

The truth, though, was rather different. Of the 26 trains, half were on time and of the others two were ten minutes late, one nine, two eight and the rest five minutes or less. Indeed, one was two minutes early. One train – the 0806 from Sutton Coldfield to Birmingham – was cancelled, but the next one, 36 minutes later, was on time.

Moreover, contrary to the implication of the front page, most of the reporters found that the trains were clean. On Thameslink, “the carriage was clean and litter-free”; on Wales & Borders “comfortable and warm”; on CrossCountry “the carriage was clean” although the “seats were scruffy” (hardly surprising as the whole fleet is being replaced); on Midland Mainline, there were plenty of seats and the ticket clerk was “courteous and helpful”; on Central, the train “was clean and tidy, apart from a few discarded free-sheet newspapers”; on Island Line “it was easy to get a seat, clean and arrived two minutes early”; on First Great Western, the carriages were old and noisy “but clean and the heating worked well”; and so on.

Most of the findings could quite easily used by the Association of Train Operating Companies as part of a publicity campaign.

Hardly a scandal, all that. Most of the negative information was obtained from other passengers and clearly any positive comments were edited out.

This broke the rule of good journalism. The Mirror editors did not have the nous to realise that the counter-intuitive story – that the railways provide, for the most part, a pretty good service – would have made much more interesting and surprising reading. In the interests of fairness, perhaps The Mirror should send out a reporter on every one of Britain’s motorways at 0800, preferably on a foggy day.

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