August is always a good excuse for inaction but this dying Tory administration has taken it to extremes. The railways are in a perpetual crisis and yet paralysis and obfuscation are the order of the day, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
It almost seems as if Hapless Harper (pic) and his Merriman have left the railways in a state of limbo deliberately while they go off on summer jollies having lit the blue touch paper of booking office closures and run away before the fireworks went off. They have also stood by like disinterested observers while the industrial dispute which has dogged the industry for more than a year remains unresolved. They are presumably acting at the behest of the helicopter hopping Prime Minister who seems to show more interest in pulling pints, despite being a teetotaller, than in anything to do with the railway. Indeed, I understand that much of the failure to address railway issues is a result of the lack of interest in Number 10 which sees the whole network as an irritating burden on taxpayers used solely by the unwashed non car owning minority. Jeremy Hunt, at Number 11, is complicit, too, merely viewing the railway in terms of how much subsidy it is using, rather than a key component of the nation’s infrastructure.
Speaking to rail managers, it is clear there is a loss of confidence in the future of the industry. The discussion often centres on just how much damage can be wreaked before the other lot take over after the general election but there is little confidence that the difficulties can be sorted out quickly even then. This loss of confidence in the future of the railways was well illustrated by the departure of Tim Shoveller from Network Rail to head up Freightliner. Shoveller, is a lifetime railwayman who has worked at a senior level in both the private and public sectors, and for both train operators asnd Network Rail, giving him the kind of insight into the whole industry which was commonplace among managers in the British Rail era.
While in one sense, it is possible to argue that such a senior figure opting to move to freight is a vote of confidence in that sector of the industry , his departure represents a great loss to Network Rail. In fact, he was widely personable, accessible and acutely sharp, his CV meant that he was widely considered to be one of the most likely possible successors to the current chief executive, Andrew Haines.
Another movement in personnel which has attracted far less attention than Shoveller’s departure but is even more significant was the appointment in July of Anit Chandarana, the led director of the GBR Transition Team, to as senior role in the Department for Transport, Interim Director General for the Rail Infrastructure Group . This seems to be the first move in a restructuring of the Department with ministers still pressing ahead on their scheme to create an ‘interim guiding mind’. That is, as mentioned before, a desperate attempt to salvage something out the GBR fiasco but according to lawyers is doomed to failure because the present legislation will not allow such a body, interim or not, to make decisions on, say, contracting, without the involvement of the Department.
Shoveller’s departure is, I understand, part of a wider trend in the industry with senior and middle managers voting with their feet for greener pastures. This is not about pay but about the feeling that the industry is, as it were, not going anywhere. There are desperate attempts within the Department for Transport to put a brave face on the lack of movement on the key issues, notably the creation of Great British Railways, or, in its absence, the restructuring of the governance of the railways to create the space for the new organisation.
Meanwhile, as the deckchairs are moved around, the chaotic state of the railways remains unaddressed and the scandalous booking office plans are lumbering through. As Nigel Harris has pointed out, eliciting the biggest revolt on the railways, possibly since the repeal of the Corn Laws (well, give or take). The vacuum at the top of the railways left by Harper and his Merriman has allowed this to take place.
My email inbox has been full with responses from people concerned about this issue, often asking fundamental – but unanswerable – questions. I was contacted by Alan Meekings, a retired railway manager who, under Chris Green, was responsible for many of the improvements undertaken by Network SouthEast which led to the sector becoming profitable. I met him in 1995 and recall his enthusiasm for growing the railway. There were teams to reduce ticketless travel, marketing campaigns linked to specific events and above all a huge campaign to get people to use the railways off peak, which was basically cost free extra income. Meekings later worked for Richard Branson at Virgin, creating a huge call centre in Scotland to enable people to buy tickets by phone – in those pre internet days – and a survey revealed that almost two thirds of these customers would not have travelled by train without that easy way of buying advance tickets. Now there seems to be a campaign to deter people from using the railways, chopping wifi, pushing up fares, reducing services and making it harder to buy tickets.
He was angered by the fact that this is precisely the sort of measure which deters people from taking the train, the opposite of what British Rail was doing: ‘No one seems to have considered the non-linear effects – in other words the longer term consequences of closing the ticket offices. There is no doubt that many people will be put off using the railways – not just the disabled and the elderly, but those unable to work their way through the ticketing system.’
In particular he asked, ‘where is the business case’? Usually no one is allowed to go to the loo in the Department for Transport without a business case being prepared. The transition team led by Chandarana has worked itself through several months worth of lottery jackpots in preparing these lengthy documents and yet the Department has sprung on the unsuspecting public the possible closure of nearly 1,000 ticket offices without even the hint that it has done any sums whatsoever. ‘Back of the envelope’ is too flattering. As Mark Smith, who is the Man at Seat 61, told Nigel, he would have expected that there would have been some assessment of the throughput of each ticket office being considered for closure. Yet, given that Glossop will survive and Glassgow won’t, there has been no such systematic work.
But as Meekings pointed out to me, in the past there would have been railway managers – and indeed staff on the ground – who would have been able to assess the impact of such a move and report upwards to the senior management.; But the railways are leaderless and rudderless. Meekings describes the process as akin to the Beeching cuts and the turmoil of privatisation a generation later. He sees it as the third postwar upheaval to hit the railways and he has a point.
No more hiding under commercial confidentiality
One of the best aspects of our political system is that there are still checks and balances to challenge decision making by the government ministers. Over the years, the Commons Transport Select Committee, chaired by an illustrious series of independently minded politicians, such as Robert Adley (who wrote trainspotter books), the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody (both sadly no longer with us) and more recently Louise Ellman. When Huw Merriman was promoted to be rail minister last year, his position was taken over by the quietly spoken but effective Tory MP for Milton Keynes South, Iain Stewart. After enjoying having Merriman, as minister, submit the government’s response to the Integrated Rail Plan inquiry report which Merriman himself authored, Stewart and his committee have launched an interesting enquiry into data.
That may sound fantastically dull but actually is vitally important in this day and age. So much can be gleaned from data and the railways produce absolutely copious amounts of it. The first line of the call for evidence asks exactly the right question about how the sharing of data can be used to improve services. One of the outrageous results of privatisation is that rail usage figures have become ‘commecially confidential’. This is ludicrous, both because it is difficult to see how the release of such figures can be detrimental to a train operators but also because it prevents the sharing of what should be publicly available data. Of course, it is even more ridiculous now that the train operators no long take revenue risk and therefore have no financial interest in how many people use the railways. Let’s hope the committee can expose this calumny and ensure that railway data is open to all.