Rail 497: A ‘Revolution’ that leaves the railway in the red

The Prime Minister’s brief appearance at the launch of the WCML Pendolino service could be a sign of his exasperation at the huge cost and flawed design of the project, CHRISTIAN WOLMAR believes.

Tony Blair was clearly not in celebratory mood when he addressed the audience at the celebration of the start of the full Pendolino service on the West Coast Main Line.

Perhaps it was having to launch a service being marketed as the ‘Red Revolution’, a casual disregard for history that may stick in the craw of such a full-blooded free-marketeer as Blair. Or maybe it was having to share the platform with the two scruffiest businessmen in Britain, Brian Souter and Richard Branson, who excelled himself by wearing a sweater that looked as if he had slept in it. Blair even mentioned the sartorial inelegance of the odd couple, saying he wished he had the courage to dress like them. But maybe the fact he was clearly in “I don’t want to be here” mode was down to a combination of shock and depressing realisation. The PM kept on referring to the fact that he had discussed the West Coast project endlessly since taking office and when invited to the launch, he could not quite believe that at last the delays were over. This was, of course, supposed to be fruits of the innovation and investment promised by privatisation a decade ago.

The project was being completed more than two years late and Chris Green, who was a bit demob-happy as he has now retired as chief executive of Virgin Trains to become its non-executive chairman, could not stop himself referring several times to the recent problems of the industry during his speech.

That rather put all the upbeat statements about ‘mission accomplished’ into perspective. So given that those responsible are still bemused by the completion of the project, perhaps it is not surprising that Blair has not quite bought into the notion that this was the launch of a 21st-century railway which will enable the chequered recent history of the network to be forgotten. He did say, encouragingly, that he liked travelling by train but clearly there was a big ‘but’ stuck in his throat. He may have been confused as to exactly what investment was coming from the private companies, given that £5 billion of taxpayers’ money was being pumped into the industry this year, or it may have been his awareness that the half-baked rail review would not achieve its primary aim of getting the bloody railways off the political agenda.

Of course, there is cause for celebration with the start of the Pendolino service even if, as Mr Green warned, there are likely to be three months of teething problems ahead.

There will be more services with reduced journey times and hopefully more people will be encouraged on to the railways. They are attractive-looking and modern trains which project a modern image for the railways. However, taking stock of the project, the exasperation of the Prime Minister is understandable, though since much of the fiasco has unfolded largely under his watch he must take some of the blame.

First, there is money. The cost of providing this new premier service has been inordinately high. There is not only the overrun on the WCML refurbishment – now apparently heading for around £9bn – but also the ongoing franchise payments required. Virgin West Coast received a staggering £330m last year in franchise subsidy rather than the £63m it was supposed to have paid when the contract was signed with the old OPRAF, and it is not known how much Virgin is to get in subsequent years.

Passengers have fled the line during the recent disruptions and blockades. The latest figures show that 14.9m used the West Coast in 2003/04, just 13% up from 1996/97’s total of 13.2m, a situation that has contributed to the dire financial situation.

However, it is clear the taxpayer is picking up the whole bill since Network Rail, now effectively in government hands, is deemed to be responsible for the whole situation when, in reality the trains would not have been ready to run the full service anyway. Moreover, franchisees were supposed to take some of the risk on revenue but clearly this has not been the case. The amount of money is quite staggering. Sometimes in the rail industry people are inclined to forget what huge numbers are being played with – a £400m difference in the taxpayers’ bill hardly makes Virgin appear to be at the leading edge of risk-taking capitalism. Dare I ask, again, what is a franchise for?

Given that this means that even peak-time trains are not full, is it not time for a fares rethink? The price of a standard ticket is just too high. As I write this, I am considering how to get to Birmingham from London to see QPR play Aston Villa in the League Cup. Virgin is saying it will cost me £97 return if I leave after 1545, which is over £200 for me and my mate, given Tube and taxi fares at each end. Instead, I am afraid, I will slip him a tenner for his petrol money.

Getting these passengers back will need more than simply providing a few shiny trains and reducing journey times. Indeed, the trains themselves are also a problem. Exasperated by delays to Silverlink services, I happened to hop on a southbound Pendolino at Watford the other day, which you are not supposed to do. It was a delayed last train from Glasgow and I was met by a scene reminiscent of Indian Railways. There was luggage strewn everywhere and the corridor was full of people stretching their legs because the seats were so cramped. Yet the train was not even full as I easily found a seat. Who is going to want to spend more than 4 11/2 hours travelling down from Scotland in airline-type conditions when they can take a real plane for less money and only have to endure an hour in their seat.

And while I’m on the subject of cuttingedge capitalism, what was perhaps most infuriating about the whole Pendolino launch was the sight of Branson claiming credit for having achieved ‘mission impossible’ by ordering 53 Pendolinos and bringing them into service. But he did not pay for them – since Angel, the rolling stock company, takes the risk on that (rather disgracefully, no speaker from Angel had been invited to address the ceremony) and, as seen from the above, he gets a lot of money from the taxpayer to run the service. All Branson does, really, is brand the trains and make sure that only his ghastly version of cola is available on them.

Oh yes, and his company designed them, and therein lies much of the problem. One senior Virgin insider told me: “The big mistake was that they deliberately avoided having anything to do with anyone who had helped BR design trains.”

It is obvious that the Voyagers or Pendolinos must not be used as the model for new rolling stock for inter-city services and let us hope the lessons from their failings are learned. The HSTs are going to need replacing, probably by the end of the decade, and the same mistake of having modern trains that are less pleasant than the ones they are replacing must not be repeated. Again, there is the nonsense of pretend privatisation. The sensible option would be for the SRA – or, rather, its replacement – to commission a new design for the trains and insist that they be used on the Great Western franchise where most sets are required and for any other similar routes. Why should a franchisee design trains when they are but temporary holders of a management contract, especially given that when things go wrong, we all know who foots the bill?

The West Coast upgrade was a deal cooked up between two private companies, Railtrack and Virgin, for which the taxpayers are picking up the tab. The criticism in this column may seem sour and churlish given that journey times are being reduced and the line is obviously greatly improved, but the soaring cost of the project and the poor design of the trains cannot be ignored. Given that the rest of us got sick of hearing the excuses while more delays were incurred, and of having to cough up more cash every time, perhaps Blair was fearful of being ambushed for just one last dip into the Treasury pot. And he probably eschewed taking the launch train because he was worried at the cost of his ticket – thinking he’d already paid enough.

Whatever the reason for the rather soursounding speech and very brief appearance, one can’t really blame him for wondering if the project was really worth all the hassle, time, cash and lost political credibility. Or maybe he was just wondering what privatisation was for…

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