Rail 611: Red tape stymies railway initiative

If you were ever in any doubt that the way we run our railway system is nothing short of insane, take a look at an obscure document on the Office of Rail Regulation website entitled ‘Section 22A of the Railways Act: ORR’s decision on the New Southern Railway 27th SG supplemental agreement’.

Actually, don’t. It is nearly 9.000 words, largely unintelligible on the first reading and covers a matter of little import. My attention was brought to it by a reader who rightly wanted to emphasise both the crazy bureaucracy that overhangs the railway in the name of encouraging competition and enterprise, and the narrow-mindedness of Virgin Trains in seeking to protect its interests.

The document is the ruling by the ORR on the failure of Network Rail to provide train paths for services which Southern is seeking to run between Milton Keynes and Clapham Junction, calling, importantly, at Kensington Olympia. Indeed, this was a franchise commitment by Southern but Network Rail refused to allow Southern access to the tracks for these services because the company judged the arrangement trains would breach its contract with Virgin Trains (called West Coast Trains in the document) which does not allow competition (moderation of competition is the legal term) on the West Coast Main Line.

Note, for a start, that Virgin has greatly reduced its services to Milton Keynes under the new timetable because it wants to focus on its longer distance services. No matter. Virgin was worried that a few trains a day running to Clapham Junction would abstract revenue and damage the investment it has made in leasing Pendolinos. Network Rail clearly just wants a quiet life and agreed.

There is not space to go into much detail but essentially the case hung on the interpretation of the words ‘call at’. Under the agreement with Network Rail, Virgin has a monopoly on services between Kensington Olympia and Milton Keynes but there is an exemption for services ‘which call at or passes through’ Clapham Junction provided they do not terminate at a major station in central London.

So the whole case depended on the interpretation of ‘call at’. Virgin argued that this did not included trains which terminate at the station! The ORR disagreed and the following statement is worth reprinting just to show that it is the lawyers which now run the railway:

West Coast Trains has emphasised the distinct use of ‘calls at or passes through’ in one sub-clause and ‘starts or terminates’ in the other as evidence that they are to be attributed distinct meanings. We do not suggest that the verbs are interchangeable, but simply that ‘calls at’ has a broader meaning than ‘starts or terminates’ as it can occur at any stage on the journey. The context does not suggest that the two sets of verbs are intended to be mutually exclusive, merely that the narrower reference to the start or termination point was deployed in the second clause specifically to encompass those routes with start/end-points beyond the named stations.

You may understand it on the third reading but don’t bother if you can’t. Essentially, it means that the ORR accepted Southern’s interpretation that trains terminating at a station also called there, which is rather gratifying for passengers who get there.

The behaviour of Virgin in pressing this case, which would have meant Southern not being able to fulfil its franchise commitments through no fault of its own was inexcusable. Clearly, the possible abstraction of Virgin’s revenue will be absolutely minimal. Moreover, with the West London line having been improved with a new station to serve the enormous Westfield shopping mall, there is bound to be a demand for the services proposed by Southern. Some of those passengers may, indeed, travel on Virgin trains as part of the journey there. Yet Virgin was prepared to block this potentially useful service out of sheer self-interest.

Of course, we should not be surprised. Train operators are in the business to make a profit. That’s fine, but then the Bearded One should stop pretending that he is running trains in order to serve the public since clearly Virgin’s objections were not in the public interest.

The wider issue boils down to this. The complexity of the process by which such a minor decision has been made is clearly completely bonkers. However, ultimately there are three ways such a decision could be made. In the old world, it would have been made by operational managers of British Rail who, of course, were subject to various political, commercial and financial pressures and these days the equivalent would be to allow Network Rail to make such decision. Alternatively, it could be made by ministers who would be responding to lobbying from various parties including the companies involved. Or we have the present situation where the regulators decide.

And really there is no alternative. Network Rail has shown, as it always does, that it really wants a quiet life and has no passenger focus. As for ministers, well they are involved in enough micromanagement already. So, we have a regulated railway and therefore have to use it. But if there is anyone out there who says this is a sensible way to run a railroad, please come forward.

National Rail website must be more robust

There was the predictable outcry over the railways’ problems when snow hit the south east at the start of the month. Certainly there were some real failings such as SouthEastern inability to get a single train out. Sure, it was difficult for staff to get to depots and signal boxes but there does seem to be a readiness to throw the towel in because it is too much hassle to try to run any service at all.

While it is excusable that this very large snowfall should have caused major problems the failure seems to be the information systems. The National Rail website crashed on the Monday morning and ‘real time’ information seems to have been anything but. Apparently, the system has built in extra ‘redundancy’ since the July 2005 London bombings and can now cope with five to six times the normal demand of around 3,000 simultaneous users. In fact, it was getting sixteen times that number and hence many people could not get the information.

Clearly more capacity is needed. There is always going to be very high demand precisely when things go wrong – floods, accidents, snow, bombs – and the train companies should build in sufficient capacity to ensure that the website can operate in any emergency, even if that involves extra cost for the train companies, who have done very well in recent years. The National Rail website is an important disseminator of public information in an emergency and should not crash at the first drop of snow. The Office of Rail Regulation must ensure that the companies do not stint on this vital service.

A year on the train

While it is customary to complain about train delays and cancellations, generally I am very lucky. I can only remember a couple of really bad incidents in all my business life travelling on trains and so last year I decided to undertake the rather nerdy task of listing every journey I made to see how well the railways were performing. And I must say, when examining the record, most of the time the railways did well but there were rather more serious glitches than I would have liked.

I took a total of 137 trains last year – excluding the Tube – but 60 of these were abroad in places as far afield as Australia and Italy. In Britain, out of the 77 journeys, there were five major delays. In March, travelling from Kings Cross to give a lecture at the National Rail Museum, overhead line problems meant I had to go on the Midland Main Line and I arrived two hours late, though fortunately just in time for the talk. Travelling to Manchester one weekend in May, I had to go via Sheffield because of a blockade and again coming back from Cardiff the following weekend I had to get a lift to Bath because the Severn Tunnel (in which I was filming!) was closed and the subsequent train to Swindon was half an hour late. Then in July, coming down from Peterborough, overhead line problems delayed my train by nearly hour and twice in the autumn I was 20 minutes late on the West Coast.

There were several issues aprt from punctuality. On the positive side, the staff generally were very helpful and friendly, and very cooperative when we were filming even if we just turned up unexpectedly at various stations (don’t tell Network Rail) or when I boarded with a bicycle. And it was noticeable, too, that there can be fantastic bargains to be had, especially with the much underpublicised Network card when travelling with a friend or partner. On the negative side, it was remarkable how often I did not get asked to show my ticket or when I did, it was not properly checked. Clearly the train operators have a staff motivation issue, which is hardly surprising given they way that they are so ready to dispense with their employees as soon as the going gets tough.

It was abroad that I had encountered serious delays especially on international trains. Eurostar was fine with all 10 (single) being punctual. Moreover, there was no problem in exchanging my Eurostar ticket when my connection from Italy was late into Paris. Of the 20 Dutch trains I took, not a single one was late and I made several connections of three or five minutes. But all five times I travelled on the overnight train between Paris and Florence, the train was at least half an hour late and was once delayed by four hours for which I received, after much hassle, some paltry compensation. Otherwise though, various French, Italian, German, Belgian and Australian trains were all more or less on time though, it must be said that the last two have tatty and uncomfortable stock. But overall, train remains the best way to travel wherever you are in the world.

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