Monday 5th October 2020
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps rolled out the usual sound bites when launching the Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (replacing Emergency Measures Agreements) on the breakfast media round a couple of weeks ago.
This is what he said on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme:
“Today we’ve ended the franchise system after a quarter of a century. I think it worked well in terms of doubling the passenger numbers and doubling the miles that people travelled. Before the coronavirus we’ve never seen it so busy. In fact quarter one of this year was the busiest ever on our railways. So it was successful in that sense. On the other hand I think it had become too fragmented; too complicated; impossible to know which ticket to buy. If you go to a station there’d be three different machines offering you three different tickets to the same place often, and we said in our manifesto we wanted to end that and simplify the system and these recovery contracts today as you rightly point out are in response to, of course, coronavirus but they’re also in response to our manifesto pledge to end that complicated system.”
Justin Webb put it to Shapps that it’s been said by rail professionals, including Sir Michael Holden earlier in the programme, that in the long term, concessions might be fine for a city region but are not flexible enough for longer inter-city journeys where marketing techniques and incentives ought to be in place. Shapps replied:
“I think you can set up concessions in many many different ways and we’ll say more about this when Keith Williams’ report comes out as a White Paper but in the meantime what I can tell you is that I think it isn’t incompatible with the idea that you should be able to incentivise more people to use the railway through that enterprise and so on and so forth and that you should be rewarded when you run trains on time. The thing which, when I became Transport Secretary just over a year ago, I was most fed up with as a commuter was just the idea that the trains, at times, the only reliable thing about them was that they were unreliable. And we just should be able to run trains on time and these contracts will be a big step towards that because the payments will come when the service is delivered. The management contract won’t pay out if the train companies don’t deliver the trains on time, passengers on time, and bring innovations in the longer run.”
It’s instructive to dissect the sound bites in these replies.
“We’ve ended the franchise system”. Well in one sense that’s true – in that Train Operating Companies are now under a different ‘emergency’ financial regime – but the legality of franchises very much hasn’t ended with negotiations continuing between the DfT and each franchise holder over how much they must hand over to be released from the previously agreed financial obligations.
Meanwhile thousands are being spent on branding by the franchise holders as though nothing has changed – eg East Midlands Railways busy applying purple vinyl to its trains as shown above. What’s that all about if franchising has “ended” and we’re going to end the “fragmentation”? Why do we now need these separate ‘franchise’ names at all now?
Passengers see different ‘franchise’ regimes continuing pretty much unchanged – for example, seat reservations are now compulsory for all journeys on LNER; are strongly recommended on Avanti West Coast while no seat reservations are possible at all on GWR or East Midlands Railway (“no specific seat reserved”). So much for ending “too fragmented; and too complicated” – these differing rules have been introduced under DfT controlled EMAs.
There’s no doubt the franchising regime had outlived its usefulness, mainly because of over optimistic bids, encouraged by the DfT, as well as DfT micro management. The fear for a future structural model is the DfT won’t become sufficiently hands off leaving professional rail managers to run the railway as in British Rail days.
Another ‘too fragmented and too complicated’ sound bite: the “three different tickets to the same place”. Perhaps it’s Gatwick Airport he’s thinking about where Gatwick Express, Southern and Thameslink – all operating under the one Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) management contract – famously charge different prices for the same journey either to Victoria or London Bridge (both called London Terminals). But, as we all know, it’s Grant Shapps and his DfT mandarins who’ve controlled everything about the GTR management contract including tickets and prices. This has been the case since 2015. The DfT have done absolutely nothing to sort out this ‘fragmentation and complication’ for the last five years. In fact they’ve encouraged it to maximise income on the rip-off Gatwick Express.
The situation has been eased by default since March following the Covid inspired demise of the Gatwick Express service, albeit it was due to be slimmed down while Gatwick Airport station is rebuilt and expanded over the next couple of years.
So the answer to ticket fragmentation and complexities is in the DfT’s hands and had been under the erstwhile franchising regime.
There’s also still no sign of last year’s much heralded rail fares reform. With numbers travelling still way below ‘normal’ levels, it’s the ideal time to implement such a ‘revolution’, especially with revenue risk now with Government rather than franchise holders.
The “three different ticket machines” sound bite? That must be St Pancras where you can opt to buy a ticket from machines operated by East Midlands Railways, or if you prefer, Southeastern. They’re even placed side-by-side to emphasise the ‘fragmentation’.
Or if you really want, you could buy a ticket from a nearby Thameslink ticket machine (still in First Capital Connect colours for any brand aficionados); well you could, if it was working.
All three ticket machines sell the same tickets. All the revenue from sales goes to Government under EMAs and now ERMAs so it makes no difference what brand name appears on the machine.
Not only that, but the Network Rail run station at St Pancras offers passengers the choice of two ‘National Rail’ ticket offices located side-by-side – one operated by GTR’s Thameslink and the other by East Midlands Railways.
As the DfT owns Network Rail and has been intracately overseeing GTR’s Thameslink contract for the last six years, you’ve had thought this anomalous example of fragmentation would have been resolved by now. All the more so as a year or so ago the EMR ticket office was moved to its curent location from round the corner to create more third party retail space in the station. The opportunity could easily have been taken at that time to merge the two offices into one.
Then we come to Shapps’ oft quoted: “I only want to run the trains on time” sound bite. When challenged about this in the Transport Select Committee back in June – Chairman Huw Merriman put the point “have you considered not going back to the full timetable to put some slack in the system so that it can run more to time?” – Shapps was unequivocal replying:
“No, we need to get back to the full timetable and we need to make the system run more efficiently, which is in the longer term, fewer less fragmented organisations involved, more technology, higher quality standards and better recovery from incidents.”
The formal DfT announcement in Shapps name issued on 21st September on setting up the ERMAs stated: “complying with current public health guidance, I have also asked operators to run almost a full capacity service, to ensure there is space to help passengers travel safely while we continue to combat the threat of Coronavirus”.
The congested Castlefield corridor through Manchester simply doesn’t work on the full timetable. The operational capacity is breached. By returning to a full capacity service, any chance of running trains on time through that corridor is a forlorn hope. When questionned about this specific example in the Transport Select Committee in June, Shapps replied £350 million was being spent to upgrade a large section of the East Coast Main Line to digital signalling. So that’s OK then.
Since then money has been allocated to review the Castlefield problem and meanwhile Transport for the North are reported to be considering whether to reduce the number of trains through the corridor.
The infamous Williams Review was set up by No-ferries-Grayling in October 2018 as ‘a root and branch review of Britain’s railway’ following the May 2018 timetable meltdown. Keith Williams gave a detailed update on his thinking well over a year ago in July 2019 but his completed Review has yet to be published. Shapps told the Transport Select Committee in June 2020 when asked for an update on a publication date:
“We would have released a White Paper already were it not for coronavirus. Now we’re holding the entire network in our hands we can do things more quickly – before the end of the year I’ll have more to say. I’m not sure what form it might take, we might not need a White Paper.”
Shapps also said he was “working with Keith every single week to work out the best way to accelerate this work and coronavirus has sped things up”.
Puzzled? I am. On the one hand everything would have been sorted “were it not for coronavirus” but also “coronavirus has sped things up”. So that’s all clear then.
Anyone thinking removing decision making from Train Operating Companies (such as it was) under the ‘broken’ franchising regime would lead to more customer orientated policies and procedures, now it’s all been ‘nationalised’ in all but name, are in for a disappointment if last week’s announcement by the RDG taken at the DfT “at the highest level” about Railcards is anything to go by.
Passengers with Railcards were explicitly told not to use them by virtue of the clear instruction to avoid public transport except for essential journeys during the three month lockdown. You’d have thought it would be a nice goodwill customer orientated gesture to meet the request made by Transport Focus to extend Railcard validity by three months. But no, the reason given being the Government are already spending a fortune keeping trains running without enough passengers travelling, so there’s no chance of any further concessions.
And on similar lines, under DfT instructions, fee waivers for changing dates of non refundable advanced purchased tickets were summarily removed by TOCs from 7th September meaning if you book a ticket for a future travel date in good faith and the Government subsequently introduces travel restrictions in different regions (‘only essential travel’) preventing you from travelling – tough, no refund nor the ability to change a travel date without a fee.
Even Ryanair are more customer orientated.