Now comes the hard bit. Does Keith Williams know what he is doing? I am not asking that in a critical way but rather as a genuine question expressed in a supportive context. After all, the poor man has been set an impossible task and he must feel that he is in one of those Escher drawings that seem to suggest a set of stairs that has no beginning or end.
In a speech in Bradford last month [July], Williams attempted to hone down on key aspects of his brief in order to give some pointers to his thinking and to reject some suggestions that had been mooted in the media. Crucially, he made clear that contrary to some media speculation, Network Rail will not be at the top of the railway hierarchy. He did not quite put it like that but instead said: ‘One thing I am not considering is giving Network Rail control over the trains’, and then he added ‘you don’t create a customer focussed railway by putting engineers in charge’. In effect, though, that means he is not intending to recommend the merging of franchises into Network Rail to create an integrated railway.
That is a big decision which rather boxes him in. Remember, this review was set up in the wake of the chaos of the timetabling changes in May last year. It was not difficult to see what had gone wrong. The bidders for various franchises had put in commitments to run services which were not deliverable by Network Rail. It exposed the fact that there was no one with the power to sit down and consider the implications of the various bids in relation to the availability of train paths and the state of the infrastructure, particularly enhancements. Chris Grayling (who may have disappeared into obscurity by the time you are reading these words) specifically said it was not his job but nor did he explain who is supposed to resolve such conflicts. Thameslink was a classic example. The lack of coordination between the letting of the franchise contract and the purchase of the trains and their financing contributed to the chaotic state of that service in the past couple of years.
The other event which prompted the review was the cost increase and descoping of the electrification programme on the Great Western and problems with other major infrastructure projects. Much of this was down to programme management and the fact that, again, the franchise contract, the upgrading of the permanent way including electrification and the station upgrades were all in separate hands with no one to coordinate the various programmes.
As these examples show, Network Rail is the railway. Williams’ rather dismissive comment about engineers suggests he does not really understand the way the railway operates. It is so different from the aviation industry with which he is more familiar. Planes go swooping up in the air and the only engineering they require when they are up there is onboard. Trains, on the other hand, are dependent on the track and the signalling for every millisecond they run.
The railways are, and here’s the rub, an inherently integrated system. It is no coincidence that for nearly all railway history across the world, the model chosen has been for an integrated system. The Stockton & Darlington which opened in 1825 was an exception but the Liverpool & Manchester, which opened five years later and which was the first modern all steam-powered railway had learnt the lesson and controlled track and operations, as well as owning the locomotives. This was the case for most railways in the subsequent 150 years of railway history until the European Union decided that separation between track and operations was the key way of encouraging on rail competition, an obsession that is largely irrelevant to Britain as it was aimed at breaking up the inefficient East European railway state run monopolies. Nevertheless, the Treasury ideologues who were behind the privatisation of the railways in the mid 1990s adopted that model because it fitted in with their mistaken view of the railways as an inefficient public sector monopoly. There is no, repeat no, justification for the separation which results in massive inefficiency and the lack of coordination which prompted the Williams review.
As it happens, in Andrew Haines, its current boss, Network Rail has someone who understands the whole railway and has worked in various roles in other parts of the railway. Therefore for Williams to casually rule out the option that the railway should be centred around a reformed and expanded Network Rail is a big mistake and leaves him with a dilemma over the future structure. Remember, his key objective is to take responsibility for both day to day and strategic decisions away from the Department for Transport. Everyone is agreed on that. But conjuring up a new organisation out of thin air to take on that key role is going to be a big ask.
Williams has therefore painted himself into a corner. If Network Rail, or a wider organisation which encompasses it, is not to be the ‘guiding mind’ (I am trying to avoid the Fat Controller meme) then the new authority – let’s call it Rail UK for simplicity – will have to take on the role. Now here’s the rub: will Network Rail, already with the Office of Road and Rail sniping at its heels the whole time, put up with taking orders from a new body that will take time to develop the right skills and reputation. There are too many cooks in this particular broth and I suspect that such a structure will suffer the same power battles as led to the demise of the Strategic Rail Authority. Far better to have Network Rail urinating inside the tent than outside it.
That’s why I think that Williams has made a fundamental error. The key to any solution is an integrated railway. Nothing else works. The problem with the present structure is the huge number of interfaces between all the different players, none of whom has any oversight of the whole railway. So Keith, think again. Already Andrew Haines has spoken eloquently about Network Rail’s past failings, many of which were down to its failure to understand the needs of operators. Unless these two sides of the railway are blended together, all the difficulties that arose out of last May’s timetable changes and out of the fundamental failure to take into account of operations and infrastructure together will be replicated.
Customer focussed? Don’t make me laugh
One of the constantly repeated refrains about the reform of the railway is to say that the new structure that emerges must be customer focussed. Leaving aside the fact that surely after almost a quarter of a century in the private sector that should have happened anyway, it is rarely explained what that means.
Well here’s a little story of to give an example of the opposite of being customer focussed. I was catching a train to Colchester with my bike that was loaded up with my cricket gear. I got to the platform at Liverpool Street just over 5 minutes before the departure and started looking for the disabled section which is normally shared by bikes. Not on the old Mk3 trains to Norwich apparently. It seems that bikes go in a special compartment right at the front of the train. But not this time. Even though when I was halfway down the platform there were still four minutes before departure, I was shouted at by a couple of platform staff who said I could not get on the train: ‘You have to be on the train 5 minutes before departure and so you cannot get on this train’ I was told. ‘The compartment is locked’.
Now I understand about trying to get trains away quickly but it does not take 5 minutes to put a bike on and then get on the train through another door. Two mins at most, perhaps just 90 secs. After all, clearly at intermediate stations they only get at most 90 secs. But would these guys listen? Not a chance.
So I started walking back down the platform and saw the disabled section. It was empty and I was getting off at the first stop so there would be no problem. I dodged into it but to no avail. The guys rushed up and made me get off the train. ’It’s not leaving till you get off’, adding that they did not mind if this delayed the train. Clearly getting me off was more important than keeping to schedule.