Rail 662: No room for entrepreneurs on the railway

In a recent letter to The Times (which was reprinted in Rail 659), Theresa Villiers, the rail minister argued  that the train operating companies function in a free commercial environment. Train companies are free to lease extra coaches and extend their trains, she said gaily, ignoring the harsh reality of the bureaucratic nightmare that is today’s fragmented railway.

The truth is that the train operators cannot simply take on new rolling stock because they have to seek permission of the Department for Transport, as invariably it is likely to cost more money than they can generate and therefore require more subsidy. Even if the move is purely commercial and profitable, the fact that rolling stock outlives the length of any franchise means that the Department becomes involved.

I have always argued that the railway companies indulge in a kind of ‘pretend capitalism’ and that they are unlike most other types of company which operate in much freer markets. But even I had not realised how difficult it is for operators to make even purely commercial decisions until I came across Southern’s attempt to run extra services between Victoria and Brighton during the off peak and I have found myself feeling sorry for them.

Currently, there is a rather irritating service frequency with three trains an hour but one half hour gap and two 15 minute ones. In their successful franchise bid in 2009, Southern committed itself to changing this through the addition of a fourth train every hour, giving a broadly 15 minute service. This was seen as a commercial decision which could be carried out without extra rolling stock and which would radically improve the off-peak offer to people travelling between London and Brighton.

The aim was to launch the service in the December 2010 timetable but  Southern, though, had not reckoned on the hurdles to effect such a change. In addition to the fourth service, there was going to be a different service pattern, broadly speeding up the trains but at the loss of some stops. At first things moved ahead smoothly. Network Rail examined the proposal and was happy with it. There is, of course, a small incentive in increasing track usage for NR since it receives extra revenue but this is small in terms of its overall revenue.

However, First Capital Connect, which runs trains down to Brighton on the Thameslink route through St Pancras, Blackfriars and London Bridge and out to East Croydon objected to the proposal, arguing that its services would run the risk of being disrupted. There were, too, objections from some rail users from parts of East Sussex who feared there would be poorer timekeeping for trains coming from further east along the coast which join the mainline just before Haywards Heath.

The matter was referred to a Network Rail timetable panel which is charged with adjudicating on such disputes and it decided in favour of Southern. All was set for the December introduction of the new timetable, pending approval by the Office of Rail Regulation. A few test trains were run and Southern was confident of getting the go-ahead. Passenger Focus welcomed the proposed new services, too. It all seemed set for the button to be pushed. But then disaster: ORR refused the request.

ORR’s arguments were based on concerns that with the extra trains the Brighton Main Line would be operating at near capacity all day long and there would be no opportunity to recover from perturbations. The ORR, in a 19 page letter, argued that the performance modelling by Network Rail was inadequate and did not take into account the effect on Victoria. Moreover, Southern had not run sufficient test trains and these had been operated on a Saturday, which was atypical.

But one could argue in response that the improved timetable far outweighed the risk, and that more trains, even with the odd extra delay, might be better than the existing lumpy service. Moreover, it is a question of whose judgement is correct: experienced train operators or the anonymous backroom boys and girls of  ORR?

What this story illustrates above all is the crazy way that the railways are run. Denying commercial enterprises the ability to make judgements on service provision makes a nonsense of the idea that railways are really privatised at all. It means that a commitment that was entered into as part of a franchise bid and accepted by the Department for Transport can be knocked back by the regulator, raising the question of who runs the railways.

As regular readers know, I might not always see eye to eye with the train operators and have frequently been critical of their short-sightedness, but I would be much happier if they were allowed to make decisions about providing extra services than some bureaucrats in a regulator’s office who has probably never been in a control centre or would have difficult sorting out a drinking session in a beer production facility (as I’m sure they would call it). Sure, I recognise that there is a problem of self-interest and maybe First Capital Connect’s objections were well grounded. But why should it be assumed that ORR knows better than NR and, in any case, it was a franchise commitment. Moreover, one of FCC’s main objection was of ‘revenue extraction’, in other words they thought that they would lost Thameslink customers to the new service. But who cares other than First’s shareholders – if more people were attracted onto the railways because a better service was on offer, why does it matter if FCC loses some passengers for what was, in any case, a franchise commitment which they have known about for some time? Railway managers used to be able to make such decisions based on their judgement and experience. Now the so-called privatised railway is hamstrung by rules and regulations that stymie any entrepreneurial spirit, ironically to a far greater extent than in the days of British Rail.

There is a wider point, too, and one which Roy McNulty may want to note. The need for this expensive paraphernalia has been created because of the emphasis on competition, rather than co-operation. In a sensible world – even a franchised one – all the services to Brighton would be run by one company and they would make the optimal decisions about the timetable in order to maximise their revenue and minimise the risk of disruption. They would know their business and make decisions accordingly. Instead we have one organisation, ORR, second guessing what two others, NR and Southern, who are both far closer to the ground, have decided is in the best interests of passengers.The question is, will any of this change for the better when the industry is restructured in response to the franchising and McNulty reviews? I’m afraid I suspect not.

Crisis, what crisis?

There has been some satisfaction within the rail industry that the snow caused more chaos to air services than to the railways. Certainly Heathrow got it in the neck, quite rightly, and to a large extent the railways avoided the kind of media onslaught they had endured last year.

However, at a seminar of transport experts hosted by the Independent Transport Commission, one message came out very clearly. The information provided by the train companies was often patchy, wholly inaccurate or out of date.

The overall impression is that the railways have not yet got to grips with the modern information age. Some websites were barely updated and failed to inform people of changes in the situation. Others did much better. London Midland ran a comprehensive Twitter service, answering individual enquiries and giving information about the general situation. It was an object lesson in how to do it, but oddly not copied by other Govia franchises such as Southern and Southeastern.

OK not everyone is keyed into Twitter or Facebook, but increasing numbers are, and that is the way of the future. I long resisted tweeting but have now realised that it is a wonderful way to keep up to date (@christianwolmar for those interested) and to inform people about what is happening and what I am doing.

However, social networking sites are no substitute for getting the basics right. Julia, in a response on my website, makes a good point that the customer information displays on the platforms are often not updated. She waited a long time for a train from Brighton at London Bridge which, in fact, had been cancelled but the default had been left on the screen, suggesting the train was on time. On complaining, First Capital Connect told her it was a ‘known problem’ which occurred quite often. Indeed, I suffered it at Guildford when a two hourly service failed to materialise on a Sunday, and I had to take a taxi despite having bought the ticket. From talking to industry insiders, all the information is there but needs conveying to the passengers. Time to pull together, chaps and chappesses.

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