Rail 619: Lemming-like operators set to jump off cliff

It is difficult at the moment not to liken the train operators to lemmings hurtling off the edge of the cliff in an act of collective suicide. They seem to be trying to outdo each other in their efforts to make themselves unpopular just at a time when they need all the help and support they can get from the press and public.
The list is endless and I can barely do justice to it in one column. But here’s a few examples of the latest moves in the bid to be top of the unpopularity charts. Most recently, we have National Express, definitely a banker for number one, charging people extra to guarantee a seat, a move which comes on top of a mid year round of increases in train fares and a dramatic cutback in catering. The company is also hell-bent on gating yet more mainline stations, an unpopular and unnecessary move which is not, despite the operator’s claim, necessarily ‘fit for purpose’ as its estimates of the number of ticketless travellers appear to be greatly exaggerated.
In a effort to further endear itself to ‘customers’ National Express recently refused to accept many tickets from people who had been affected by a strike on East Midlands Trains. According to a spokesman, National Express East Coast accepted EMT passengers with ‘Anytime’ tickets but those with advance purchase would not be carried, except between Grantham and Peterborough and between Peterborough and East Anglia. Sheffield tickets were accepted if marked ‘route Sheffield’.
My informant was incensed by this: ‘The people at Sheffield said that ticket would not be accepted by GNER. But surely the most direct way to do London – Sheffield is via Chesterfield. When that became unavailable, why should GNER not recognise the ticket?
Why are “Anytime” tickets any more valid than a saver ticket if the alternative route is down?
Why should I pay for an “Anytime ” ticket when a Super Off-peak Return was the right one for the journey?’
The reason given by NEX for these restrictions was that since ‘Sunday is one of our busiest days’ there was concern about overcrowding. All this was supposedly done with the agreement of EMT but the latter was in fact not best pleased. Understandably so. Surely most people would prefer to travel on a crowded train, than not at all, and with extra staff to provide support, and ensure people move down carriages and the like, and even opening up first class – shock – to ordinary punters, many people could have been accommodated. But the operators seem to consider that rail travel is a pleasant optional extra for people with time on their hands who could all go by bus or car if they wanted, and therefore it does not matter that the industry no longer works together at times of crisis like this in order to get as many people to their destinations as possible.
Then there is Stagecoach which put out a ‘consultation’ paper on the possible closure of its travel centre at Waterloo. Well, I am pretty sure that if I stopped a hundred people on the concourse of Waterloo station, 99 of them would say that they did not want the travel centre closed and the other one would be a Japanese tourist with no English. Although the company promises ‘improved’ service at the ticket office, it is effectively a way of deterring people from using since they are far more likely to get clogged up with people wanting to travel to Inverness via Penzance with a stopover in Aberystwyth.
This is an effort to get people to use ticket machines which are fine for relatively simple journeys but the complexity of the London ticket market – which the train operators themselves have resisted attempts to simplify – means it is often impossible to get the cheapest available ticket or it is very difficult to know precisely what option to choose. This happened to me recently when travelling in the evening to Slough from Paddington and it was unclear whether I was entitled to an off-peak return or not – as it happened I was but the rules can be unbelievably complicated and there are many people out there with little knowledge of the system. Look at the chaotic scenes on the Bank Holiday featured on the Railway Eye blog (http://railwayeye.blogspot.com/) with each ticket machine having a dozen or so people waiting in front of it.
For space reasons, we will pass over Stagecoach’s attempt to impose barriers at Sheffield station combined with the ticket checks that have caused local outrage as well as Virgin’s behaviour, mentioned elsewhere in the magazine, in alienating much of the press corps by putting out ridiculous information on Richard Branson’s off the cuff plans for the West Coast Main Line. Instead, let’s focus on the changes at FirstGroup which are set to cause real long term damage to the company. First has recently lost two top class managers in Andrew Haines, by many accounts the best railway manager of his generation, and Elaine Holt, who had performed well at the ridiculously named First Capital Connect. Both appeared to have fallen out with Moir Lockhead, chief executive of the parent company and his new overall trains boss, the Group Rail Director Mary Grant, late of First Scotrail.
FirstGroup is in a total panic about the state of the railway market and is reversing many of the measures that Mr Haines instituted when the Department nearly foreclosed on the Great Western franchise two years ago. He managed to turn that round by the application of basic railways skills and through big improvements in staff morale, always a vital factor when a franchise is on the skids. A separate and independent Great Western board was created which also helped the recovery because its efforts were concentrated on that single franchise, but now Mrs Grant has effectively centralised the whole franchising operation.
Without such a local focus, there are real fears among the staff that the situation will deteriorate again. One, obviously anonymous, train crew member wrote to me that First were making all the same mistakes again. He cites the example of a counterproductive cut: ‘FGW don’t seem bothered about the millions that they are losing in lost revenue as they won’t fill vacancies for ticket assistants who can collect up to £1000 per shift on paytrain routes and yet they only get a salary of £14, 000 per year, as they make it up on their 5 per cent commission.’ He also says that FGW is laying off revenue inspectors leaving none at all for the Bristol/South Wales area and that the demoralised staff often do not bother with ticket checks. Another source suggests there will be massive redundancies of staff at the front end, which will impact on all the morale carefully built up by Mr Haines.
Of course, we all know the subtext. The train operators are under great pressure to cut costs in order to be able to pay the premium payments they have agreed under their franchise contracts. Given that they wanted to take that risk and signed up willingly, they can hardly expect to be rescued but half their pain is passed on to the government by the cap and collar arrangements which kick in once they are more than 2 per cent below target. And 80 per cent is covered by the arrangement once they reach 6 per cent, so bankruptcy for these firms does not beckons since all of the troubled franchises are owned by major companies some of whom, like FirstGroup and National Express (for which admittedly the cap and collar on East Coast does not kick in until 2011) have recently issued quite reasonable overall figures, despite the downturn.
Yet, in their behaviour, the operators seem to be suggesting that disaster is at hand and only the most dramatic cuts and rises in charges such as reservations and car park charges, will save them even at the expense of losing customer loyalty. But railways are a long term business where discretionary patronage is built up slowly and surely through the convenience and quality of the product. For many other customers, the railway is a monopoly and therefore it is a duty of the train operators to behave reasonably. Yet, the Association of Train Operating Companies seems only to exacerbate the situation by putting up the price of rail cards just at a time when impoverished train travellers need them.
So much of what the operators are doing is short term and deeply damaging to the long term interests of the railway. Of course the ridiculous nature of the short franchising periods encourages them to make cuts, but as one of my sources suggests there is a wider problem: ‘When companies are driven by a narrow interest in their share price, and they have all suffered reductions because of the recession, they become obsessed with doing things which will please the City, however fleetingly. All attention is on the immediate share price without consideration of the long term interests. It makes me question whether the railways should be run by plcs.’ And this person is by no means a socialist!
It is, of course, not only train operators who suffer from this narrow focus. The newspaper industry suffers in a similar way where the product is degraded in the same way but many other companies realise that keeping up standards at a time of recession is crucial for their long term survival. Yet, the TOCs seem to be wiling to throw all of that out of the window because of short term interests. It is noticeable that TOCs with longer deals, such as Chiltern, or which are heavily dependent on subsidy, such as Northern, are not behaving in this way. So the question is, are most of the operators really lemmings, in which case there is no point in trying to save them from themselves, or are they prepared to take a longer term view of their businesses? At the moment, their dreadful performance suggests they are heading for oblivion over the cliff, all holding hands as they jump into the abyss.

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