The Tories are preparing for government. Or at least they should be. Mystic Wolmar’s view is still that there will be a hung Parliament after the election but the likelihood is that even should the Conservatives fail to win the election outright, there will be a Tory Secretary of State for Transport by the second week of May next year.
So far, the Tories have told us little of what they might do in office. I chaired a conference recently at which Stephen Hammond, the junior shadow transport minister, gave a useful run through of their current thinking. He outlined much of their wish list such as wanting better cooperation between the train operators and Network Rail, more effective regulation, capacity enhancements, a ban on building on disused rail lines and a reform of the governance structures of Network Rail. Vertical integration has been considered, he added, but rejected as there is no desire to cause further upheavals in the rail industry.
None of this is new, but merely restates the policy announced at the beginning of the year by his boss, Teresa Villiers. That is disappointing as, nine months down the line and with the election looming one would hope for a more detailed elaboration of their plans and a more sophisticated debate.
Rather more interestingly, Mr Hammond outlined what he thought was wrong with the railways. He said that the trains were overcrowded, that fares were unclear and that they were unreliable. Actually, this may be conventional wisdom and the view of the person on the street, but not necessarily that of passengers. So let’s instead try to work out what are the top ten isshoos, as Tony Benn used to call them, that the Tories should try to address:
1. Fares To pick up one of Mr Hammond’s points first, he is right to say that the situation is a mess. But the much needed fares rationalisation, suggested by Nigel Harris in the last issue, would be enormously complicated to introduce, indeed nigh on impossible, as Nigel acknowledged, given the need for the cooperation of the train operators. That should not stop a clear elaboration of what is needed.
2. Maintaining the investment programme There is no doubt the mandarins in the Treasury will target transport as an area ripe for cuts, especially the investment programme such as Crossrail and Thameslink. Working out how to fight them off should be a top priority.
3. Franchise length and purpose While it is easy to say that franchises should be longer and that there should be less micromanagement from the Department, working out how to resolve the problem of the long term transfer of revenue risk, given what has happened to National Express East Coast, will not be easy. And as Lord Adonis has said, is protecting passenger and state interests against profit maximising train operators really such a bad thing?
4. Effective Regulation The Office of Rail Regulation has shown itself to be a bit of a toothless tiger given that its sole sanction is to impose fines on an organisation which is effectively state funded. It can’t even stop Iain Coucher and his colleagues on the board from getting their bonus when they mess things up. So how can the Tories give it some canines and incisors. .
5. Electrification Given Ms Villiers rather disingenuous comments about electrification, will the Tories commit wholeheartedly to Adonis’s proposed programme?
6. Network Rail governance and cost Again, while it easy to argue that Network Rail requires tighter governance, setting out how to achieve this is no easy task, especially as direct interference will result in the £20bn plus debt ending up on the government’s books, not something that will please the Chancellor in waiting, the schoolboyish George Osborne. Or will the Tories be brave and create a renewed privatised Railtrack complete with shareholders?
7. High Speed Line Yeah, yeah, we all know the Tories want to stress their commitment to it but how is it really going to be paid for. Do they really want it to eat up a vast proportion of any rail budget when, in fact, there may well be a lot of cheaper alternatives to boosting capacity.
8 New Trains The government is currently in negotiation with Hitachi, the preferred bidder, for the new Intercity Express Trains. My view is that hybrid trains, not used anywhere else in the world are a nonsense and therefore with the electrification of the Great Western line and the complexities of the project, the sensible option might be to scrap it – though I recognise that would allow for less through running – but again we have heard nothing from the Tories about their thoughts on this.
9. Safety Currently the dog that does not bark, but an ever present issue. Level crossings is the big remaining risk, with Network Rail failing to take the issue seriously, as demonstrated by Phil Haigh’s article in the next issue, giving the Tories an opportunity to show they understand the complexities of such detail railway matters by pushing for improvements.
10 and finally, overcrowding The people suffering most from overcrowding are in the Tory heartlands of the Home Counties. Will they be offering them anything except more of the same? Is it actually that much of a problem? Indeed, should the railways be investing massive amounts of money to cater for peak hour commuters?
The Tories will have a very tough act to follow. Lord Adonis is widely recognised in the industry as the first transport secretary in a generation – and possibly ever – to have a thorough understanding and knowledge of the railways. None of his predecessors would have been able to set out in such detail the plan to electrify two major rail routes which involved a fantastically complicated cascade of stock involving several franchise and to explain how to pay for it. Yet, at the time, all Ms Villiers was able to say about the plan was that Lord Adonis had not set out how it would be paid for when, in fact, that is precisely what he had one.
Ms Villiers has certainly improved her game since she was first appointed but she shows no signs of having the detailed knowledge and application that would enable her to match the performance of Lord Adonis. Forget the notion that Adonis would switch sides and be Secretary of State in a Tory government. My feeling is that he may actually be more likely to quit the House of Lords and try to become an MP in order to further his political career. He is not a Tory as shown by the review he wrote of my book for the Financial Times (available on the FT‘s and my website) where he emphasised the importance of state involvement in the railways.
As I suggest above, the new Transport Secretary will have quite a difficult agenda on the railways, let alone with the rest of the brief. If their respective thoughts on electrification are anything to go by, Adonis is clearly a star player for one of the Premiership big four, while poor Ms Villiers is more like Blue Square Conference North material. My instinct, therefore, is that the Tories will need a heavier hitter than Ms Villiers if they are not to be found wanting in this respect. Indeed, the nature of the appointment will be a pointer of how seriously they intend to take transport as an issue.
Why do operators have to be so unpleasant?
I have had two bad and one good experiences with train operators recently. The good one first: I had a prebooked ticket from Harrogate to London but the train I was supposed to take to York was so delayed that I was going to miss the connection. Instead, I hopped on a train to Leeds and the pleasant train guard on National Express did not bat an eyelid when I showed him my ticket, accepting my explanation as to why I was on the wrong train with equanimity.
Pleasant was not a word I would use for the train guard on the Virgin train I had taken from Euston to Liverpool a couple of months previously. He was the sort of nasty little jobsworth who takes delight in making life difficult for passengers. I had been unable to pick up my tickets from the machine because the travel agent for the TV company I was working for had texted me the wrong code. I knew the right code was on my computer but there was only five minutes to go and I did not want to miss the train. I said to the guard, who was on the gate checking people in, that I could show proof of purchase on my computer, but instead he demanded I pay the full £67 single to Liverpool before I boarded. When I was on the train, he accepted the computer ticket, allowing me to sit in first class which showed it could have been settled without me paying twice. Of course, by then he had made his 5 per cent on my extra ticket.
Worse was to come. As he suggested, I sent in the ticket for refund but Virgin said that since I had not shown a valid ticket to travel, it was up to the travel agent to reimburse me and not the train operator. So Virgin is quite prepared to make me pay my fare twice to satisfy its bureaucratic principles. I am pressing for the refund and will relate my tale.
Then there’s First Great Western’s nasty trick. Mistakenly, I bought an off peak return ticket to Swindon to save me the trouble of queuing at the station, only to find that I no longer needed to travel. So I applied for the refund before the proposed journey, only to find that the administration fee of £10 was charged twice. Why? Because I had followed FGW’s advice and bought two singles, and there was no way of getting both tickets refunded online through one procedure. Again watch this space.
Such cases do untold damage to the industry. Speak to non-rail users about why they do not travel by train, and so often these type of issues come up. Train companies appear to be in the Bronze Age when it comes to customer care, no different from the worst aspects of British Rail.