Rail 546: The Billy Bunters of Railway School must try even harder

In his annual summer-term report on the pupils of Railway School, headmaster CHRISTIAN WOLMAR praises improved performance but finds there are still too many trips to the taxpayers’ tuck shop.

How time flies when you’re having fun. It’s time once again for the usual headmaster’s annual report on how the boys and girls (of whom, pleasingly, there are an increasing number at the top level) in the Railway School have fared in the past year.

Of course, we must start with overall praise for the improvement in performance and for the continued high standards of safety. The National Rail Trends for 2005/06 showed that punctuality and reliability improved in no fewer than 17 out of 24 TOCs, which in no small part was due to a better performance by Network Rail. And rail accidents almost seem a thing of the past, with no rail industry-caused disaster since Potters Bar in May 2002 – a remarkable and quite unprecedented record.

But those same railway statistics point to problems in the Railway School that present serious concern for future terms. The amount of government support going into the industry went up from £3.8bn in 2004/05 to £4.6bn, and that does not count NR’s increased borrowing of some £3bn to the staggering total of £18bn which, since there is no hope of it ever been paid off, in effect represents subsidy too. BR, remember, was not allowed to carry debts in that way and such borrowing would have counted as subsidy in the year in which it was made. So broadly, we have a railway that is costing £7.5bn more than it is earning, and that falls either on today’s taxpayers or those of the future.

The madness of today’s railway economics is further borne out by the fact that fares went up by 5.8% that year, the major contributor to the increase in revenue of 8%. So any praise for the industry has to be tempered with the obvious questions about where all this money is going and, more importantly, whether the railways continue to offer value for money. Are the boys and girls of the Railway School working so much harder they deserve more visits to the tuck shop than old Billy Bunter (BR) ever dreamt about? Or is at least some of the negative coverage of the railways perhaps deserved?

Every year there seem to be fewer classes to write about. First, the maintenance companies disappeared and last year the SRA class found itself unwillingly expelled. Now the Health & Safety Executive is no longer with us, having transferred its role to the Offi ce of Rail Regulation. However, there are still rather too many players in this industry and the relations between classes are always rather turbulent, despite attempts at virtual integration. That is why the ORR has just produced a hard-to-read consultation on incentives (see below) which is really a futile attempt to make sense out of a farce.

Given that, for the moment, all the classes are stuck in a structure that is, to say the least, sub-optimal, how have they fared? As usual, there have been quite a few changes in personnel with, most importantly, Alistair Darling being replaced by Douglas Alexander to head the government class. So far little has been seen of Alexander in the Railway School as he seems to have been occupied elsewhere, but there is undoubtedly a change of mood in the DfT under his leadership. Suddenly the environmental consequences of transport are mentioned in almost every breath and my friendly sources report a completely different atmosphere, with serious consideration given to all kinds of policies to restrict environmental damage.

On the face of it, that should mean good news for the railways but the department is not entirely convinced about the environmental credentials of rail now that safety and disability legislation has meant an increase in the weight of trains and consequently fuel use. Alexander also showed early promise when he announced the specifi cations for the East and West Midlands franchises, suggesting there might be a move away from the ‘screw the most premium possible’ policy in relation to TOCs.

Which moves me nicely on to the nasty greedy bullies of the train operator class. First Capital Connect, for example, quite apart from having the daftest name in the class, has been extracting as much as possible out of its customers by no longer allowing them to leave London during the afternoon peak. Heaven forbid that a train service provides a service people actually want to use. Then there is GNER, doubling parking charges and cutting back on their meal service, quickly losing its reputation as a customer-friendly railway – especially as its conductors now seem to delight in fi nding passengers who have the wrong ticket so that huge extra charges can be imposed.

GNER further compounded its problems by taking the regulator to court, never a good idea especially if you lose and then there is the recent matter of, ahem, human excrement slopping out of the trains.

However, if class members could be expelled for sheer nastiness, First Great Western would be a prime candidate given its response to a recent inquiry in The Guardian’s personal spending ‘agony aunt’ column. Whereas most companies immediately answer by saying ‘sorry, and here’s a refund’ FGW’s fabulous PR approach is rather different. Its response to a probation offi cer who claimed he did not get all his tickets from the machine after having paid for them online, and therefore had to pay an extra £63 for his journey, was to say that he could have passed the ticket on to someone else. A brilliant anti-PR move. Boys and girls, can we please pay attention to the ticket-touting rules which are plastered over every Tube station if not train station – beware of strange non-uniformed people trying to fl og you a ticket; this is illegal and funds crime in your area.

Much of this is down to the Department for Transport class which has taken over from the SRA. This class has become the most powerful in the school as demonstrated by the fi asco over the West Country branch lines, which was clearly its responsibility. The specifi cation of franchises in great detail not only rather belies the purpose of franchises, but also demonstrates the foolishness of having abolished the SRA class. I would not be surprised if in future years, a new railways agency emerges, or possibly the franchising responsibility is merged in with Network Rail a suggestion made by Richard Bowker when he was at the SRA. Bowker, of course, is returning to the Railway School after a brief interlude in education and next year’s report will examine his progress at National Express, assuming it does not lose all its franchises (it’s losing money on ‘one’ and there are rumours of mergers or a sale).

The Network Rail pupils are supposedly the best in the school for having improved their performance. However, as mentioned last year, their visits to the tuck shop are all too frequent and now we hear that while they hope to reduce costs, they want another £8bn to do up the railway. It’s a jolly clever ploy trying to suggest that the pupils can raise money without government backing but it’s really only a conjuror’s trick – and one we already know the secret to. We know what you are up to, so can we stop the tricks and have some transparency around spending and value please?

Finally some smacked bottoms for the Offi ce of Rail Regulation class. I used to berate old boy Tom Winsor, for his lengthy consultation documents that no-one read, but at least, largely, they were readable. Not so recent efforts. Chris Bolt and his chums seem to have forgotten that language is for communication if this sentence, taken from a recent consultation on incentives, is anything to go by: “These outputs… will need to be specifi ed at the appropriate level of geographic disaggregation, and will need to allow appropriate trade-offs to be made both across outputs and inter-temporally.” (‘Inter temporally’ presumably translates as ‘over time’ – I presume that we are all going to die inter-temporally?)

When I was at school, I always got the same comments on my report card: “Wolmar should try harder.” The same goes for most of the pupils in the Railway School. Last year I concluded: “Overall, it has been a better year on the railway, with better behaviour from most classes, though the overriding issue is the overuse of the tuck shop. There is plenty of uncertainty in many of the classes and there must be continued improvement this year or there will be great pressure to axe yet more classes.”

The same conclusion certainly applies for the forthcoming year, with the publication of the High Level Output Specifi cation and the 30-year strategy. Greater effi ciency – as well as vision and foresight – are needed more now than ever before. Alexander has started some thinking outside the box, a welcome move. Let’s hope the rest of the industry can get off its soapbox, stop complaining about negative coverage and go back to basics – good passenger service; safe, reliable and punctual service; and affordable, value-for-money service.

Oh, and before I forget: Great Western, 100 lines please – “The passenger is ALWAYS right. The passenger is ALWAYS right… ”

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