Rail 429: Gwyneth’s grillings generate a lot of heat but little light

The hearings of the Commons Transport Select Committee are usually great knockabout fun under its rumbustious Chairman Gwyneth Dunwoody, but, argues CHRISTIAN WOLMAR, its subsequent reports can be short on intellectual rigour.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, that redoutable chairman of the Commons Transport Committee, has just won Channel 4’s Backbencher of the Year award for her grilling of transport ministers and various other assorted players in the industry.

It is a deserved victory. Covering the hearings of her committee is, indeed, one of the regular treats for transport journalists. She can be very funny and sharp, and there is plenty of knockabout stuff that often makes it on to the 10 O’Clock News. But, unfortunately, Mrs Dunwoody’s swashbuckling is a weakness as well as a strength. She plays to the crowd and is often highly entertaining, but her committee lacks the rigour that might come of a chairman who was playing a longer-term game.

That was highlighted most strongly by the first of the two reports issued by the committee in the first week of February which covered the franchising process and, as an aside almost, the collapse of Railtrack*. It is a deeply unsatisfactory document. The committee attracted considerable attention during its hearings in trying to find out precisely what happened on that famous weekend of October 6/7 when Stephen Byers pulled the plug on Railtrack. The committee (though not its Tory members, who dissented from this part of the report) largely exonerates the Government from applying for Railtrack to go into railway administration, saying that “on balance” this was caused by “the failings of its own senior managers”.

But the MPs are far less clear about how the rail industry should be sorted out and, indeed, at times contradicted themselves. For example, they fall into the trap of arguing for long-term contracts without realising that the train operators, as presently constructed, are not vehicles for investment but are mere management contractors. They recommend rushing into the signing of franchise agreements without being aware that the current uncertain state of the industry means that deals are likely to be signed on unfavourable terms. They express doubts, quite rightly, about Special Purpose Vehicles, but suggest little about how the much-needed investment can be channelled into the industry.

The committee did not like the Strategic Rail Authority’s plan to have a single operator for services to and from London stations, and yet in another recommendation, says “the fragmentation brought by privatisation contributed to the chaos and delay that paralysed the industry” and should be reduced. You can’t have it both ways, chaps and chappesses.

The committee calls for the SRA to take a more, well, strategic role and for the Government to sort out the railways and then leave them alone. But that call, which is often heard from rail industry spokesmen, is naïve and futile. The industry is now absorbing more than £2bn of subsidy a year and this is going to increase throughout this decade. Does anyone seriously think that this money should be handed over to a bunch of private companies with no public scrutiny? Get real, guys.

Indeed, the MPs and the industry should consider the question of the future relationship between Government and the railways. There is no point saying, as the committee suggests, that the railways should be left to their own devices because not only is that not going to happen, it would be wrong. Politicians have several legitimate roles in the railways such as setting long-term priorities, ensuring investment is channelled in the right places and determining the role of rail in wider transport goals. The committee should have spent time trying to work out a structure in which politicians could use their legitimate influence without attempting to micromanage the industry.

The MPs’ incoherence is hardly surprising. The difficulty in sorting out the industry has taxed greater minds than those on the committee and little light has resulted. But nevertheless it is disappointing that their efforts failed even to provide the beginnings of a blueprint for the industry or to address its problems in a useful way.

The second report, into the Public Private Partnership for the London Underground, had a much clearer message. Indeed, it was completely damning about the scheme, arguing that it may not deliver “value for money”, would inevitably lead to massive disputes over the immensely complex contracts and could lead to rapidly rising fares. The committee was most angered by the fact that the Treasury refused to send anyone to appear before it to explain its role in the development of the PPP. The influence of the committee was further undermined, however, by the fact that a mere two days after its publication, Stephen Byers announced that the PPP would continue regardless.

But criticism is cheap while constructive thoughts are harder and politicians are always better with the former. Finding a way forward for the national railways which have been broken up into a system of byzantine complexity is tough but the MPs should, at least, have tried to look at possible structures. The intellectual weakness of their findings on franchising makes one doubtful about the value of these reports. They are, after all, compiled by a bunch of amateurs supported by a secretariat and specialist advisers. The reports, to be effective, also need to have a political consensus which the franchising one lacked as the Tory members tried to ascribe blame to Stephen Byers for the Railtrack fiasco.

The Commons Transport Committee is a very good way of raising political issues and causing a bit of a stir. But, unfortunately, it does not bring us any nearer to coherent solutions for what is an almost intractable political problem. Perhaps we need to go back to an out-of-favour mechanism, a Royal Commission on the railways, chaired not by a hapless amateur like Lord Cullen but by a railway expert already well versed in the history and the problems of the railway. Such a commission would have the advantage of being able to force reluctant witnesses, like the Treasury, former Railtrack executives and perhaps the Tory originators of rail privatisation, to appear before it. However, the commission would also need to be conducted quickly so that its recommendations could influence the process of sorting out the railways.

* House of Commons Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Passenger rail franchising and the future of railway infrastructure, Stationery Office.

Come back, Beeching?

In a column at the end of January, The Economist raised that old issue of closing sections of the railway in order to make the industry more economic, under the heading ‘Come back, Dr Beeching’. The author argued that Britain had more railways for its land area in comparison with other European countries.

Superficially there seems to be a coherent argument for having a smaller railway. Much of the network is largely self-sustaining in that there is no need for operating subsidy (well, there wouldn’t be if we operated under a BR-type system but that is another question). The magazine points out that two-thirds of Government subsidy, £855m last year, was spent on underused regional networks and suggests that much of this network could be closed.

The trouble with that line of thinking is that it makes the same mistake as Beeching. Many people use the rail system precisely because it is a network and while superficially these lines look redundant, their effect on the economics of the whole railway is difficult to determine. Moreover, there is an important economic benefit of a region or town having a railway connection which again is tough to quantify. Some of the obvious candidates for closure, such as the Highland lines, also have unquantified benefits in attracting tourists.

There may well be sections of line that would fail any test of economic or social benefit. Where The Economist has a point is in highlighting the fact that these calculations are not to be found in the Strategic Plan and nor do they seem to be on anyone’s agenda. It seems the only way we will find out is if suddenly there is an announcement of an intended closure, as happened with Carlisle-Settle. And who would suggest closing that today?

Compensation update

In my last column, I mentioned the various travails I had endured on my train journeys and the different approaches of the operating companies to compensating me. Well, I was being optimistic in thinking that I would get any money out of First Great Western for being delayed for nearly two hours. Because the delay was caused by some poor young woman committing suicide – a ‘fatality’ as it is called in the trade – I was not entitled to any compensation.

That negates the whole point of such schemes. For the passenger, it is irrelevant whether a delay has been caused by a duck-billed platypus wandering along the track or a major accident. The passenger experiences the delay and therefore should be compensated for it automatically. These are precisely the sort of issues that the SRA should be considering for the industry as a whole, setting clear standards across the board which are easily understood by passengers.

As for Virgin, I got a measly £5 voucher for an hour’s delay between London and Birmingham. That was 50% of the fare for that leg of the trip and I would have received 100% for a delay of over two hours.

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