How do you fix a problem like rail franchising?

What to do? How to fix a broken railway?
The answer rather depends on how broken you think the railway is. It’s caught many headlines and, yes, it has made many people’s lives a misery since timetables changed in May at Northern and Thameslink.
Elsewhere trains continue to run and Network Rail continues to operate, maintain, renew and enhance the network. There have been delays resulting from the hot weather we’ve otherwise been enjoying. It’s led to speed restrictions to reduce the risk of tracks buckling as rails expand in the heat (their temperatures have topped 50oC in places). It seems to have adversely affected Hitachi’s IEPs running on Great Western. Whatever the reason, hot weather delays trains.
East Coast services between London and Scotland now run under London North Eastern Railway rather than VTEC. The transfer went without a hitch. Teams from various companies have been finishing their bids for West Coast and thrashing out their ideas for Midland Main Line services. They bring their own ideas to satisfy the DfT’s demands for better services and have VTEC’s financial miscalculations as an example of what can wrong.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of pressure from politicians on the DfT to strip Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) of its franchise. Readers will know that GTR has a management contract with DfT rather than a franchise and with this contract comes tight control by the DfT, which pays GTR a fee to run trains and receives all its income in return. With this tight control comes little point in stripping GTR of its deal. Ministers might consider that GTR’s presence keeps some of the heat off them in a way direct control would not. Then again, the roasting ministers receive from MPs and others might persuade them they couldn’t be worse off.
The fundamentals of a railway that governments specify and private companies deliver isn’t broken. But it doesn’t work if governments accept unrealistic bids. Nor does the railway work if governments set Network Rail unrealistic goals. The key is realism. And realism depends on knowledge and experience.
I doubt some of those advising ministers have sufficient knowledge and experience. And those that do must fight a civil service mentality of preferring to tell ministers what they want to hear rather than what they should hear.
None of which reduces pressure on ministers to do something. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has already overseen Network Rail’s appointment of Andrew Haines as chief executive. Haines is unique among NR chief executives in having run a railway. Departing chief, Mark Carne, for all his qualities could not bring this but he had a tough chief operating officer in Phil Hufton. Unfortunately, Hufton is absent ill and insiders tell me that his absence is noticeable in performance figures.
Not that performance features particularly highly on NR’s list of things to deliver. Look at Scotland and NR’s scorecard reveals that ScotRail punctuality comprises only 10% of NR’s overall score for the country, competing with safety, finance, investment and asset management. Of course, all these factors have their place and I’ll admit that it’s fiendishly difficult to separate and rank each of them. But when you consider that Anthony Smith at Transport Focus never tires of saying that passengers’ top three priorities are punctuality, a seat and value-for-money, is 10% enough?
Take a look at NR’s scorecard for London North Eastern and East Midlands route and you’ll see that GTR’s delay minutes form just 1% of its overall weighting. At least for this route, train operator performance accounts for 40% of the total weighting, chiefly because it has several large operators such as Northern, East Midlands and LNER. Each accounts for 8% of the total.
But back to ministers. They could split Network Rail’s System Operator into an independent body. When I interviewed Managing Director Jo Kaye last November, she argued that it was not yet time but admitted that as Britain saw more infrastructure managers as well as NR, it could eventually become independent.
The System Operator has caught much of the criticism for failing to produce timetables for Northern and GTR in sufficient time even if the root causes were late decisions by the DfT and late electrification by NR. Standing as an independent body might allow it the space to warn of the consequences of late delivery. It could better advise on strategic capacity improvements from a position of independence.
I might have suggested putting it under the Office of Rail and Road’s umbrella had that body not lost its voice over recent years. It could have formed a third part of ORR’s rail work, standing alongside its economic regulation functions and its safety arm (the part of ORR that does have a voice with its chief inspector, Ian Prosser).
Ministers should split DfT’s franchising functions to leave the department doing policy and the franchising body procuring. It might even put franchising and system operator under a single roof but this combination would need to be very transparent if it’s to gain trust from train operators.
Splitting franchising would be to admit that DfT career civil servants are not the best people to design and deliver franchises. The new body would need to be staffed by people with experience of running railways from train and track backgrounds so that they grasp the art of the possible. But they should not be its entire staff because it’s important that railways move forward and pressure from franchising competitions does force bidders to rack their brains for new ideas.
The move would force ministers and their civil servants to step away from close control of rail. When you’re vexed by daily complaints, this is hard to do. But once rail recovers from its timetable meltdown, it will be the right thing to do. It will allow ministers to properly hold the railway to account without also being complicit. Who knows, one day transport ministers might be statesmen.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 857, published on July 18 2018.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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