Rail 649: Railway class will miss its star pupil

It’s time again for the annual assessment of the performance of the railway school which is about to undertake yet another massive change. Lord Adonis tried to turn the school into a freestanding academy, with oodles of extra money to bring it back up to speed and promises of expansion into new ventures. Now the new government is clearly wanting the school to become once again a bog standard comprehensive with smelly toilets – though these have been a feature of the Virgin class since the 2002 introduction of the Pendolino – and leaking roofs by cutting back on the investment available but interestingly money is being kept aside for the new high speed line class .

 There have been even more comings and goings than usual this year, especially at the top level. Let’s start, then, where there has been the most changes with the Government class pupils being cleared out at the election. It is with great sadness that we have to note the departure of the head boy, Lord Adonis, who definitely gets pupil of the year prize as he achieved more in his two years as rail minister and then transport secretary than any of his predecessors. In particular, he put the notion of a north south high speed rail on the agenda, worked out a fiendishly clever scheme to reduce the cost of restarting the electrification programme and managed to combine both a strategic view with detailed understanding of how the industry worked. There could not be a greater contrast with his predecessor, Geoff Who?, a man utterly ignorant of the industry and who seemed to care only about his ministerial status.

 Nor could Adonis’s successor, Philip Hammond, be more different. He comes to the class with little knowledge but with a desire to be iconoclastic and to ask difficult questions. There is little on which to assess his performance so far, though perhaps he could brush up on the functioning of level crossings (see Rail 647), but there is no doubt that the forthcoming 12 months are going to be very trying for him. The key question is whether his ‘let’s cut everything’ attitude will soften as he becomes familiar with the industry. Just as with Alistair Darling, one doubts whether he will ever be in the running to have a locomotive named after him.

 There are changes in the offing at the top, too, of Network Rail class, which has earnt the reputation of being the most obdurate and difficult class in the school under its head boy, Iain Coucher. Let’s hope that the pupils take advantage of the departure of Mr Coucher to change their manner. The impression given by Network Rail class to the rest of the school, and indeed the outside world, is of an arrogant organisation unwilling to change, ask itself tough questions or hold itself out to be accountable. That was most obvious with its policy of continuing to pay ridiculous levels of bonuses to its overpaid executives despite ministerial hints that this was a bad idea, but also in its failure to provide sufficient information for its performance to be assessed. In particular, much of its enhancement programme is nothing more than glorified renewals, which makes the company look good but ultimately changes little for passengers.

 The matter of bonuses was just the latest example of the way that recently Network Rail seems to want to pick a fight with the boys from government class over numerous issues such as what lines should be electrified, the route of the new high speed line and the seven day railway. What’s more rather than being tucked away in the bike sheds, the fights have been outside the school in full view of everyone, not an edifying sight for the rest of the school. Hopefully, Mr Coucher’s successor will be a more conciliatory kind of pupil.

 What makes it harder to mark Network Rail class is that its monitor, The Office of Rail Regulation, has been pretty lax about keeping a proper eye on the boys and girls in Network Rail and certainly the regulator must do better next year. Most important, the ORR should be getting to the bottom of the issue of why Network Rail needs so much from the tuck shop. The international comparisons are a good start but so much more detailed work is needed. Time and again, the ORR boys and girls do a bit of studying, highlight an issue, but then seem to duck the consequences. They need to mete out the stick rather more, give NR a few sound thrashings with the heavy cane rather than pussyfooting around with gentle raps on the knuckles with a twig. It is noticeable that old boy Tom Winsor still pops up to berate the feebleness of present day regulation but he himself has been bad about delivering his homework as he promised to write a book about his days as regulator but it has yet to see the light of day six years on.

 Back on the subject of departures, another head boy who will not be missed is Richard Bowker, late of the National Express form of the Operators class which has been taken over by Dean Finch who definitely earns the ‘toadie of the year’ prize for his comments about fares rises. Readers will remember that National Express had a big bun fight with the government class and because it walked out of one of its classes, East Coast, was going to be banned from the whole school, as well as having its stay in East Anglia and Essex Thameside curtailed.

 So Mr Finch is going on a charm offensive, with a hair shirt and constant genuflexions by saying that the government was quite right to consider fares increases because his passengers were a bunch of rich bastards. Sorry, I got a bit carried away there and he did not quite put it like that but he did say that ‘it was absolutely legitimate’ to look at fares rises in order to raise revenue – even though the money will go straight to the government rather than the operators.

 The other prominent pupils in operators class this year have been Stagecoach. Bravely, they took on the Department over two aspects of their franchise deal, and partly won – the arbiter agreed that the company could start getting compensation for its South West Trains franchise under cap and collar arrangements ten months earlier, which the company sources claim is worth £70m – £100m. This suggests that South West Trains is losing money hand over fist in the current economic climate and that top boy Brian Souter was rather too eager to stay in the school, massively overbidding for the franchise, odd behaviour from a lad normally so parsimonious he lives off his pocket money. Interestingly, the company was rather quieter over the fact it lost its claim not to count parking revenue as part of its income, which cost it around £8m per year in profit.

 A word about Eurostar class. After the debacle over the breakdown of five trains in the tunnel just before Xmas, the company did appear to have learnt some lessons when the next crisis, volcanic ash, occurred a few weeks later. In particular, in a good PR move, the operator started offering one way seats at a standard £89 and declassified the extra services. This is the type of initiative that is sorely needed in these trying times.

 We have, in our school report, often had to refer to the disappearance of entire classes. Gone, for example, are the Strategic Rail Authority, the HSE (in respect to the railways, in any case), Railtrack, Connex, and so on. Most have not been missed but the demise of the Railway Forum class is a great loss to the school. Under the leadership of Adrian Lyons, the forum gained a reputation for clear thinking about the railway industry and was influential in  government circles. Unfortunately, his successor, Paul Martin, did not match Mr Lyons’ peerless skills and a successful coup by Network Rail and leading train operators led to the whole class being abolished. Mr Martin, presumably, did well in the tuck shop before he left since he has not uttered a word about either his or his organisation’s demise. Another, far less lamented departure is Jarvis which, suspiciously, went under just as the inquest for the Potters Bar accident in 2002 finally got underway. One suspects that its head boy, Steve Norris, also did well in the tuck job despite the company’s demise.

 There is a new boy in the school, too, a temporary pupil by the name of Sir Roy McNulty. He is trouble. From his preliminary work, his scoping study, he has got to grips with the main issues and his final report due out in March 2011 could be devastating in its recommendations and may lead to radical change in the school. He is looking at eight different issues and his initial study suggests that he is leaving no stone unturned.

 I must end with another warning to the whole school. The tuck shop has been closed and will remain shut for the whole year and quite probably long after that. The children should remember that everyone is in the same boat and avoid taking it out on each other. Rather, a united front from everyone affected in respect of government class will yield better results all round.

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