Rail 625: School report shows patchy progress

Whoopee, school’s out and it is time once again to report on the performance of the railway school over the past year and what an exciting year it has been. Pupils have been moving in and out of the school with all the speed of a Pendolino whizzing through Milton Keynes and there have been some strikingly good – as well as some truly awful – performances.

Let’s start with the Operating Class where, quite frankly, some elements have been so unruly that there is a feeling of revolt in the air. Squeezed by the recession and forced by their contracts to consider only the most short term aspects of the railway, the pupils have been battering away at their elders in the Government Class seeking help to be able to finish their homework.

Already, National Express has given up any hope of passing its exams and has now found itself a permanent place on the naughty step. By giving up on its East Coast franchise, the company has effectively guaranteed that it has no long term future in the Railway School. So far it is remaining in the class with its C2C and East Anglia contracts, but in reality it faces permanent exclusion at the earliest opportunity, even if, as seems likely, the government is unable to exercise its cross default clauses.

Other pupils, too, seem intent on hellraising. Stagecoach is baring its teeth in a stand-off with the Government Class over their eligibility for franchise payments which is likely to end up in the courts for a full scale confrontation. Several other franchisees have been quietly taking advantage of the cap and collar arrangements in their contracts to visit the seemingly ever open tuck shop and more will be expected to do so if the economic downturn continues.

There have also been cutbacks in staff and services, which may result in short term savings but ultimately will be detrimental to the class as a whole. Watch for further exclusions or even a wholesale change in the arrangements for this class, unless there is a rapid pick up in the economy.

A word about the class prefects, the Association of Train Operating Companies, an organisation which has never seemed comfortable with itself. Its new boss, Michael Roberts, is struggling manfully to give it a sense of purpose, but it was clearly a mistake to appoint a chairman, Mike Alexander, who was fatally wounded when, in his first interview, published in Rail, he showed a complete lack of understanding of the issues around electrification and now has found himself permanently excluded after barely a year in the school.

The financial crisis seems to elude Network Rail Class which carries on blithely, oblivious to its effects. Protected by a generous settlement by the regulator for Control Period 4, the pupils promise to produce lots of new goodies but, in fact, it is highly questionable whether they are value for money and their regular visits to the tuck shop seem increasingly irksome in these troubled times. Indeed, strangely, despite the billions these pupils are receiving, they have decided to cut back on short term renewal on the railways with the idea that investment in machinery and equipment will enable them to do things more cheaply in the final couple of years of the 2009-14 control period.

Then there is the symbolic issue of the top pupils sticking their greedy mouths into the trough when the rest of the world is cutting back on generous bonus payments that prove far to easy to qualify for. Rather than follow the example of the BBC, which has scrapped bonus payments for its top managers, Network Rail continues to pay ludicrous sums of money for a performance that is widely accepted to be satisfactory, at best.

It all goes to show that effectively these pupils are a law unto themselves with very little accountability to anyone outside. Network Rail needs a much firmer hand from the lot in Regulatory Class, but this increasingly dull and hesitant bunch, who lost their star pupil in Chris Bolt, appear to have little appetite for making  their presence felt in the face of utterly shameless bad behaviour. The regulators may have whinged at Network Rail claiming bonuses for its top staff, but have done nothing to actually try to prevent them.

Or take, for example, the continuing travails on the West Coast Main Line. Rather than challenging Ian Coucher to a bundle outside school hours, the response from Regulatory Class pupils, led by Bill Emery was the merest rap on the knuckles and an injunction to prepare yet another plan to finish their homework. Look chaps, just how many times can you tell them to try harder, without taking action? It never worked for me when I was at school!

Let’s finish, however, on a bit of a high note with the performance of the sixth form, the Government Class where prefects have been in and out with remarkable regularity. The prefect at the start of the year was Ruth Kelly but she proved unequal to the task, finding there was little instant reward in transport and much hassle. She did begin, however, to her credit to change government policy on electrification before, oddly, letting slip her resignation in the middle of the Labour party conference (a D for timing, Ms Kelly). Her rail minister, Tom Harris, a pupil who had been able to engage with the industry and, indeed, the media, disappeared with her.

Then came Geoffrey Who?, one of those machine politicians with as much charisma as the rear end of a hippopotamus and all the sincerity of a timeshare salesman.  However, thankfully, as his junior minister, who did all the work on the railways, we got Lord Adonis, undoubtedly the most talented politician to arrive in Marsham Street in the dozen years of Labour rule. When Who? characteristically sought oblivion having claimed the odd dubious expense, Adonis was given the top job and has proved remarkably energetic, pushing ahead with plans to draw up a scheme for a new High Speed railway, appointing station ‘czars’, supporting electrification with a remarkably coherent report supporting the case for it, rapping Stagecoach on the knuckles for trying to close ticket offices and foreclosing on the National Express East Coast franchise. He is a man with an eye for detail, as well as an understanding of strategy, and moreover is a fan of the railways. He is definitely a star pupil but sadly will have left the school by the time I write my report next year. His one blind spot, though, is his enthusiasm for ticket barriers, not shared by passengers or, indeed, many rail industry insiders.

So the overall verdict on the year from the Railway School is that surprisingly the pupils have got through a tough year mostly unscathed. But the year ahead will be even tougher: watch for more trouble for those in operating class as the recession continues, further pressure on the Network Rail pupils to smarten up their act and a complete change in the ministers in the government class who will then inevitably cede authority to the civil servants who rule the roost in such circumstances.

How not to conduct Public Relations

The worst crime of PRs is to pretend black is white – and then be caught out. That happened when I rang Arriva’s press office about the awful journey endured by a couple of friends of mine, Graham and Jan,  who had travelled from Bristol to Taunton on a Monday in mid July, after he had been to hospital for a heart procedure. The hospital, as is the modern way, discharged him on the day rather than, as had previously been suggested, keeping him overnight and consequently they took the train back, an Arriva CrossCountry service, at around 4 45 and found that it was the journey from hell.

Jan picks up the story: ‘We could only just squeeze into the vestibule. There was no chance of even getting into the coach to try to get a seat for Graham and so we stood, rather like in a Tube train at peak time, for half an hour.’ She was amazed that the train could be so overcrowded at what seemed like a quiet time, and wondered if it was the result of an incident.

But no. Talking to a regular user of the service, she found that this train, and the one following it, always suffer this level of overcrowding. It is, indeed, well known for being so full and therefore attracts lots of people who know they can travel for free at this time because Taunton is ungated. Moreover, there are frequent thefts of suitcases as people leave their bags in the racks where they are easy prey for criminals who know that the train will always be too full to allow people to stay with their luggage: ‘On our train, there was an announcement that a lady had lost her red bag, and the lady we talked to said this was a regular occurrence’. However, the worst aspect of the tale was that the company seems in denial about the problem and was prepared to suggest it was not endemic. When I phoned its press office, the response was initially said that the overcrowding experienced by my friends was exceptional.

When I pressed the point, I was told by Stuart Henry, the ‘external relations manager’: ‘I’ve had a word with our fleet team and again, there is no evidence to suggest this is a regular occurrence.  It was only when I came back a third time that his boss, Richard Gibson, admitted: ‘the problem of crowding occasionally occurs on this train because it is one of the peak services from Bristol for local commuters.’ He said Arriva had considered using a five car train instead, but was unable to do so because of limited availability of the longer trains.

So is it any wonder that we journalists are rather sceptical of anything which is said by PRs? This is type of response is unforgiveable and raises a wider issue about the way that the industry presents itself. If my information had not been rock solid, I could have been fobbed off and be none the wiser. The first rule of PR is not to tell porkies and the second is not to be caught out doing so.

The inflexibility of the railways means that this situation is unlikely to be remedied in the short term although Arriva say taking out the shop and increasing seating in their Voyagers will help. Actually, a more thoughtful response from Arriva might have been to blame Richard Branson because the root of the problem was Virgin’s decision to lease four and five car Voyagers to replace the longer Mark 3 trains and HSTs that used to operate on these routes. So Arriva is suffering from a decision made by another company which has left behind a legacy caused by its planning failures. Of course the leasing of the stock must have been sanctioned by the Department for Transport at the time, but it does show why such decisions should not be left to short term private sector interests and why we need a railways agency to ensure they are taken in the right context.

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