Rail 698: Will Bristol be forgotten in new franchise?

Railways find it hard to change. The ideal for operators and engineers alike is a railway that has a constant steady flow of trains and passengers, with predictable patterns across the weeks and the months which are relatively easy to cater for.  Good railway operators are those who are able to perform the same tasks day in day out with the same result.

Change is difficult for good reason. The railways are a capital intensive business, where rises in demand can result suddenly in the need for massive levels of new investment, whether it is simply an extra carriage or two, as is happening on the West Coast Line, new signalling to increase train paths, as for example currently in the Reading area, or even a whole new line as with HS2.

It is the lumpy nature of this investment which makes railway economics so different from that of other industries. If sales of say, Coca Cola are booming, it is a simple matter to increase production either by squeezing existing assets – say add a night shift a couple of days a week – or ultimately build a new bottling plant. That may require considerable investment but the extra sales will ensure that an adequate return is obtained – otherwise the scheme will not go ahead.

That simple relationship does not work on the railways and that is at the root of all their problems. I was struck by this when I spoke at a meeting in Bristol organised by local people to press for improvements to be included in the Greater Western franchise, currently being competed for by four of the usual suspects.  There is a desperate need for the expansion of local services in Bristol but how this can be achieved and paid for under the present system is a task that even Hercules might baulk at.

It was, admittedly, bad enough in the days of British Rail to get stations reopened or new services implemented, but at least decision making process was confined to one organisation which had the power to take decisions without direct government interference. It is so different today.  Getting Network Rail, the local authorities , the train operators and the Department for Transport all marching in the same direction is no easy task. And whatever talk there may be of the private sector putting in some cash – perhaps for reopening stations – there is no getting away from the fact that money for both the required capital investment and operating costs will have to come from taxpayers’ pockets. And unlike the days of BR where many quite major capital expenditure decisions could be made by the board without reference to ministers, now every pound is closely scrutinised by what has become a Ministry of Railways.

Bristol, like many regional cities, once had a flourishing suburban rail network. These services were killed off after the Second World War, as car ownership spread and local authorities responded by accommodating motor vehicles at the expense of railways, trams and buses. Bristol, at least, for the most part retained its tracks and a few services such as the Severn Beach line and connections between Bristol Parkway and Temple Meads.

Now, of course, the climate has changed an railways are seen as a way of boosting local economies rather than being a drain on them. The area’s local authorities – for once working in concert when traditionally they have not reached agreement over issues such as light rail – have put together a scheme for a ‘Greater Bristol Metro’ (details at http://greaterbristolrail.com/ which would provide a new half hour service on the Portishead line, currently used for freight, and improvements to the Severn Beach Line. In a second phase, they want to see services on the Henbury Loop and the reopening of various new stations including Ashton Gate which would serve Bristol City’s ground.

However, even the first part of the scheme would require four tracking  – back to capacity before BR, still in cutback mode in the 1980s, tore up two tracks – of Filton Bank, a major bottleneck between Bristol’s two mainline stations.  Therefore, to make any of this expansion possible, Network Rail must include this in its work programme, the franchises bidders must be prepared to offer services and the government must provide the cash through its ‘Statement of Funds Available’, which it will publish at the same time as the HLOS.

This type of local investment might be made easier if government proposals for the decentralisation of rail funding ever see the light of day. They were set out in a consultation paper that was rather buried as it was issued at the same time as the Command Paper on the future governance of the railways in March. It is, in truth, pretty lukewarm stuff and given that any major changes to the system will be made after this round of franchise lettings, it is difficult to see this move having much impact on cases such as Bristol.

God knows, Bristol could do with better public transport. It is one of Britain’s most congested cities, with the slowest moving urban traffic in the country, and its bus network has long been a source of complaint by local residents which, of course, exacerbates delays on the roads. It is a typical example of the failed transport policies of the postwar period when the car was king and nothing was to get in its way. Moreover, it looks so much better on the other side of the water. One of the campaign pamphlets points to Toulouse, a similar size city which also has a strong tradition in the aviation sector, where there is a genuinely integrated transport system with a metro system, a tram and a comprehensive bus network – all obtainable for a 1.50 Euro ticket.

That is the dream. The trouble is that while these issues are of great importance to Bristolians and, indeed, to the economy of the area, they are unlikely to feature prominently in the franchise bids. There is so much else for the bidders to worry about – electrification, the impact of Crossrail, the introduction of the ridiculous new InterCity trains and so on. Bristol, I’m afraid, is hardly likely to figure.

Somehow, though, the campaigners must make sure it does. The meeting was well attended and three MPs were there.  This is a key in the campaign. In a sense, Bristol is a testing ground for the new round of franchises which are supposed to include investment plans. The coincidence of timing of the new long franchise, together with the imminent publication of the government’s High Level Output Statement, which will set out planned investment for the five years from April 2014, offers both a perfect opportunity but also an awful risk that if Bristol does not gets its new services now, it will be half a generation before there is another chance.


Come on, ATOC, cut a bit of slack


The train operators have a fantastic opportunity to kill off the constant drip of bad publicity they attract over harassing people without the right ticket who are clearly not inveterate fare dodgers. The recent report by Passenger Focus highlighted truly dreadful treatment of passengers who had forgotten their railcard or had lost a ticket but could show clearly that they had paid for it. There was an element of real vindictiveness about the treatment of these ‘customers’ which no other company exhibits – with perhaps the exception of Ryanair, hardly a comparison which many operators would like to be made.  Both Nigel Harris and myself have personally witnessed bemused passengers, who are clearly honest citizens, being charged exorbitant amounts of money. Threatening a young woman who has paid £10 for a ticket with a railcard that would otherwise have cost £14 with a bill for £260 because she forgot the card is just ludicrous – why not just impose a £4 fine penalty, or give her the opportunity to show the card at a later date.

Yes, yes, it would impose a slight burden on the operators but they are acting with the authority that was vested in British Rail as a national concern when, in fact, they are private companies seeking to maximise their profits. The regulatory structure needs to be amended accordingly, but one can imagine their squeals if that were proposed.

Not surprisingly, the Association of Train Operators was pretty reluctant to go on air to justify these actions and confined itself to a vague statement about revising its national guidelines. But the problem goes deeper as it stems from very complexity of the ticketing system, and, in particular, the ridiculous disparity between an advance ticket and one purchased on the day. What is needed  is a degree of flexibility on the part of the operators, both in terms of the tickets they sell – why can’t advanced tickets, which are usually on trains that are half empty, not useable in a time window rather than on a particular train, for example? – and in terms of those individual mishaps such as when a passenger forgets their railcard or has lost a ticket for which they can show proof of purchase. Yes,  few fraudsters would maybe get away with it, but its all a small price to pay for the undoubted goodwill and good publicity that would result.

In practice, it would hardly cost anything, perhaps a few hundred thousand out of the £6bn or so annual fares revenue. So ATOC, why not say something like: ‘We are very concerned about these cases and will ensure that in the future we will make every effort not to impose disproportionate penalties on customers who have made a genuine error’ – there, that wouldn’t be too difficult, would it?

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