‘A once-in-a-generation opportunity?’ Not quite, we’ve had more rail reviews than we have had failed franchises on the East Coast

 

Confidence in the captain of the ship, bumbling Chris Grayling, is in rather short supply

 

It was no surprise to have details of the much-trailed rail review announced on the same day as the Office of Rail and Road issued its highly critical report into this summer’s timetable fiasc

It is standard government technique, going back decades, to announce a review simultaneous with the airing of bad news.

In 2003, for instance, when the body of weapons inspector David Kelly was sensationally found dead in the woods, within hours Lord Hutton was appointed to look into the general circumstances. This neatly moved the media’s attention onto the battle between the BBC and the government, with poor Dr Kelly relegated to a secondary role. We are consequently still waiting for an inquest into his death, 15 years later.

So if in doubt, hold a review. It gives the semblance of action, outsources the whole issue to someone outside the department, and gives everyone in the department, ministers and civil servants alike, a breathing space of several months until the review reports, during which time they can bat any awkward question away on the basis that the review will examine it.

In defence of the decision to hold what we are told will be an all-encompassing review, there is no doubt that the last few months have been torrid ones for the rail industry, not to mention its passengers. Besides the timetable fiasco, we have seen:

  • the franchise system creaking at the seams, most notably on the East Coast route;
  • Network Rail continuing to deliver projects late and over budget;
  • a number of electrification schemes abandoned as the secretary of state enthusiastically embraces bi-mode trains – except that a great many mono-mode trains have already been ordered;
  • seemingly never-ending industrial action taken by the RMT over door-opening;
  • train punctuality at its worst since 2006;
  • another big fares hike due to arrive in January – that is one thing that will arrive on time;
  • passenger numbers, after years of growth, falling back;
  • Crossrail’s opening delayed by a year, at very short notice.

And of course, confidence in the captain of the ship, bumbling Chris Grayling, is in rather short supply. It is noticeable that this review has been ordered by the prime minister rather than the transport secretary.

All this bad news hides the fact that a lot of progress in our rail network is continuing to take place, and that some of the disruption passengers have faced has been down to good news: a big investment programme of enhancements. Unfortunately the Rail Delivery Group, which ought to be prominent in its championing of the rail industry and selling this story, has been almost invisible, whether through its own flat-footedness or an unwillingness to say anything negative about the government on the basis that it believes it must not bite the hand that feeds it. In public relations terms, must do better: 3/10.

Nevertheless enough of substance has gone wrong, and the public’s mood is undoubtedly mutinous, so on the face of it, a root and branch review has both merit and attractions.

But was I alone in my reaction of pessimistic dismay when the rumours of yet another rail review began to seep out?

I am sorry if this sounds cynical, but it is not as if we have not been here before.

Paul Plummer, from the Rail Delivery Group, has enthusiastically embraced this latest review as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the wide-ranging and independent thinking our railway needs”.

Hardly once in a generation. We have actually had more reviews than we have had failed franchises on the East Coast

Hardly once in a generation. We have actually had more reviews than we have had failed franchises on the East Coast.

Back in 2011, we had one from Sir Roy McNulty, set up to find ways of getting better value for money from the industry, not a dissimilar objective, it seems, from that of the new review.

Here’s an extract from his report:

“Among the principal barriers are fragmentation of structures and interfaces, the ways in which the roles of government and industry have evolved, ineffective and misaligned incentives, a franchising system that does not encourage cost reduction sufficiently, management approaches that fall short of best-practice in a number of areas that are key cost drivers, and a railway culture which is not conducive to the partnership and continuous improvement approaches required for effective cost reduction”.

Well that seemed pretty comprehensive. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for establishing the review was not matched by an enthusiasm to implement its recommendations. For example, he called for less prescriptive franchises – the opposite of what happened subsequently.

McNulty also identified that rail costs ought to be 20-30% lower than they then were per passenger mile. It seems we are now back at square one.

His report, with some foresight, also included this warning:

“What is much more important is that everyone’s time and energy is now applied to agreeing and implementing solutions to the problems that have been evident for too long”.

Well he could wish.

The franchising fiasco on the West Coast Main Line, which cost the taxpayer many millions of pounds, led to another external review, this time by Sam Laidlaw. His franchising recommendations included:

  • ensuring future franchise competitions are delivered at a good pace based on sound planning, a clear timeline, rigorous management, and the right quality assurance;
  • ensuring we have the right mix of professional skills, in-house, and where necessary from professional external advisers.

Not much evidence of that subsequently.

Then shortly afterwards came a review from Eurostar’s Richard Brown, who concluded that the franchising regime was “not broken”, but that “the department’s most essential next step must be to strengthen its organisation and franchising capability”.

Yes. Thank you and good night.

And the next one please. In 2016 came the Shaw Report, actually a refreshing document in that, rather obsessing about structure, it overtly recognised the need to think about the needs and desires of those who use the railway.

It recommended that the department “clarify the government’s role in the railway and Network Rail” and “explore new ways of paying for growth in passengers and freight on the railway”.

So rather than having a new review, it might have been a better approach to revisit all the previous reviews

So rather than having a new review, it might have been a better approach to revisit all the previous reviews from the last seven years, examine what became of each of the recommendations, and for the department to produce an action plan based on that analysis, at least as a starting point.

Instead, I fear we are going to have another process into which a huge amount of everyone’s energy is put, with no guarantee that anything meaningful will change at the end of it all.

It is also unfortunate that, in announcing the review, Chris Grayling decided to contextualise it by stressing the benefits that have flowed from privatisation. Now there have indeed been benefits – the huge increase in passenger numbers since 1994 and the almost impeccable safety record of the railways since the demise of Railtrack are testament to that.

But by flagging up this aspect, he has all but guaranteed that ownership will become a central issue in the review. Labour and the RMT are already out of the starting blocks and I suspect the public might not be far behind. This is especially so if another general election appears possible, and with a no-deal on Brexit looking more likely by the day, that cannot be ruled out.

And yet the question of whether we have public or private ownership is a diversion at best. As I explained in Passenger Transport a month or so ago (PT190), the railways are already nationalised to a large degree, so hijacking this review to major on this philosophical issue will help nobody.

As for Keith Williams, who has been chosen to head the review, it is true he has some transport experience as head of British Airways until 2016 when he became deputy chairman of John Lewis. It is also true that supermarket arm Waitrose has been performing strongly over the last year, gaining market share while Tesco and Sainsburys lose theirs, for which he doubtless must take some credit.

Yet he has no obvious knowledge of rail and it is a tall order to expect him to absorb all he needs to absorb before writing his report. I can think of a number of people in the rail industry who command respect, whether it is Sir Peter Hendy at Network Rail or David Brown at Go-Ahead, but I would not necessarily identify them as the best people to conduct a review of the John Lewis Partnership.

So good luck to Keith Williams. We will, I am sure, all await his conclusions with interest. Time will tell whether his report is a catalyst for major change, or another worthy document to add to the dust-covered volumes on the top shelf at Great Minster House.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

 

 

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