Friday 21 December 2018

British Rail Or Not British Rail?

How many of us had a train set when we were young? How many of you still do? Did we all dream of running real trains instead of model ones? I mean, how hard can it be?

Greater Anglia announced this week that they are scrapping First Class on all its trains except Intercity on 1st Jan 2020. On the whole this has been warmly received as it should free up an additional 20% of standard seating on the new Aventra trains. Well, not exactly free up as they are not being built with First Class anyway! Compared to if they were, I guess. But whose decision actually was this? Abelio announced it, but are they scrapping it because they have been told to? Southeastern gave a clue to that last night, when they directed people asking about the future of First Class on Southeastern to the new Franchise details. The announcement of who is to operate the new Southeastern Franchise has been delayed, and I think I can see why - the document is VAST!!

Anyway, after a lot of searching I finally found the relevant paragraph regarding the future of 1st Class on Southeastern. It says "The Department requires a Franchisee that will remove First Class accommodation on all Passenger Services within 18 months of the Start Date. " So it's not the operator's choice, but a requirement of the franchise agreement, as directed by the Government. In fact, the entire operation is dictated by the franchise agreement. You wouldn't believe how complicated it is to say "run a few trains on time". I would also suggest that to understand every term and condition you would need one of the most highly trained and boring lawyers in existence, because to read through the "Invitation to Tender" makes Stephen Hawkins' A Brief History of Time look like Dear Deidrie! It ultimately leads to one question, a question as vast as the document itself - who, who in their right mind would want to operate a franchise so detailed and demanding it may as well say how many times a minute you can breathe!

The railway press are at pains to tell us ad nauseum that the Train Operating Companies don't make a huge profit. So why do they do it? Are they masochists who enjoy getting the stick every time something goes belly up? I cannot think of a more Hellish way of doing things. But the railways are privatised, you say - it's what we are told. Well yes I thought so too, but they're not. They are subcontracted. That's all it is. Subcontracted to operators who pay the government to do the government's dirty work. You've got to hand it to the government it's brilliant for them! They still get to call all the shots, from timetables to the seat qualities to train lengths yet the operator gets all the blame. Sir Humphrey pulled a blinder there!

I honestly don't know if my respect for the operators has gone up or down after reading that Invitation to Franchise. It certainly seems no decision is actually theirs, but at the same time who, in their right mind would enter into such an agreement unless there is more money than we know about, and after recent bailouts for Abelio and Virgin I'm not sure there is. Anyway, if you're stuck for something to do over the next few days - not much going on I know - take a look at this Invitation to Tender. It might make you look at our railway industry in a different light. British Rail? Still alive and kicking I think, and re-nationalisation would change very little except the government having to put its own name to things, instead of the franchisee whipping boys. You can read the document here.

Speaking of train sets do you remember the excitement of getting a new loco, carefully taking it out of the box and laying it on the tracks, ready to go? Sadly that doesn't happen with real trains, and despite the 4th Class 755 Flirt arriving at Norwich yesterday it will still be a good 6 months or so before they enter service. Greater Anglia have helpfully put out a post explaining why, which you can read here.

A couple of bus notices - it was in the news today that after 3,000 subsidised routes having been cut since 2010 the number of bus journeys being taken has fallen. How they reached that conclusion I'll never know....

Secondly Stagecoach have announced they are pulling the plug on their US operations, which includes Megabus. They have taken a big hit too financially. I'll be interested to know what our resident North Carolina reader, Norfolk Boy thinks of this!

This will be the last post before Christmas, but over Christmas I'll be posting my fantasy Utopian Transport System post, which I'm sure will have the trolls frothing at the mouth! So to all my genuine readers thank you for another year, hopefully there will be a bit more to write about next year, and I wish you and your loved ones a great Christmas, and a blinding 2019.


  1. This is genuinely the question I have been asking myself for years, I can see no real upside to, at least the UK transport businesses, in being involved in train operation. They have no control over what they do and most of the decisions that affect passengers and yet they get all the blame for everything that goes wrong and the returns are dreadful with many contracts losing money by the end and margins at the start being terrible (even when compared to the poor returns made by bus operations). I can see some upside for non-UK businesses and those contracting specialists like Serco as the reputational issues are less (know one really knows or cares who the parent is in these cases and it doesn't matter to Italian customers if the service in the UK is poor) and they do make a little bit of profit over the franchise and has a high profile in certain circles (not involving the general UK public) which are important for these businesses. I could see a good case for entering the business at the start of the process (in the 90's when the first rounds of franchising happened) when a lot of commercial freedom for operators to use their customer focused skill sets but now all those decisions are controlled by the DfT (or regional equivalents) centrally. I can't help feeling some of these businesses remain in trains simply because they can't conceive of not being involved and/or they are scared of how the City may react and affect their share price if they announce they are pulling out, and yet it doesn't seem to have done National Express any harm and it would probably once people think about it be seen as a good thing as most of the profit re-adjustments announced by UK Transport Organisations relate to issues with their rail subsidiaries.

  2. Just a couple of thoughts on fantasy Utopia transport:

    1. I tend to agree with dwarfer on the trains (for once!). Irrational politics. It gives the politicians someone (else) to blame. That matters, a lot. It fools no-one but themselves; but that hardly matters, it seems. We are willing, even happy, to join in their fiasco. (And when did the Government ever make a payout for poor performance - even though we'd still be the ones paying for it?)
    2. Essex CC have started their (inevitable, perhaps) consultation on future subsidised buses. The good news (sort of) is that on a quick read they propose after March 2020 to limit Sunday subsidies (including it seems in town) to 2 hourly 08-19; and not to subsidise (as exceptions if local councils can cobble together the money) anything with less than an average 6 passengers after 2200 on any day, or after 1900 on Sundays. They do at the moment pay for a surprising number of 22xx and 23xx services. But in my experience (having been one of them) maybe a couple of people use them if we're lucky, in my (occasional) experience, and none with free passes. A couple of Braintree town evening routes disappear anyway on the current £5pp criteria. But who else has country town routes out of daytime?

    I also seem to have read that Suffolk CC intend to try and make their savings by getting more bums on seats. A good idea . . . not sure, how, though? More for the fantasy job.

    I look forward to Steve frothing (again!) at the uselessness of using the bus for a night out - but, seriously??? Perhaps Steve's UTS will tell us how? We're awash with vouchers from desperate retailers/pubs/restaurants/cinemas or whatever before we get to that hoary chestnut, again!

  3. Just a thought: isn't it again the inevitable tension between value for money and social objectives.

    VFM says subsidise those buses which people use, but not enough to make them commercial. The most benefit to the most people. What's not to like? But are the subsidised and commercial services sometimes coming too close to overlapping?

    The late evening services aren't used (much) but they enable maybe a few people without access to a car to have a normal life that the rest of us enjoy. How much is that worth?

    I don't know the answer. But we can't turn the clock back to the 1950s.

    We have to have some rules.

    1. Just a thought for the silly season. Shortage of money means we have to make uncomfortable choices.

      So could we have the usual mid-evening subsidies during the working week M-Th, and subsidise the late evening services FSa as a compromise. Yep, it mucks up the scheduling; but shouldn't the industry be serving the passenger not the other way around - at least where the taxpayer is paying for it?

      And 2 hourly Sunday day services in-town - how does that help to relieve congestion and sustainability? Although if it encourages the commercial services to fill the gaps, then what's to complain about? It's all a game. That's half the trouble. Is half a cake better than none?

      Too often it seems the commercial services will only pull their weight when the Councils threaten an imminent famine.

  4. At the risk of boring you all . . . . . we do have rules; they are the Transport Act 1985 and as subsequently amended.

    The "market" will determine which services can be provided commercially, and which cannot. Bus Operators will provide those commercial services, and (hopefully) make some profit. If they don't make any profit, then they will fail. Just remember that "profit" begats "investment", so all those posh new buses with WiFi and leather seats are purchased from profit.

    Those services that cannot be provided commercially should be provided by the community, via the local authority. They will need to have a method of determining value for money, and this will be set (indirectly) by the electorate. If the electorate decide that VFM on bus services is lower than VFM for elderly care, then so be it.

    The water has become muddied by bus operators' willingness to take on services that are borderline commercial, or where they perceive the benefits of operating such services to protect a network, when local authorities decide not to continue with them. It is noticeable that such services are now in process of being cancelled due to lack of passengers (reference Compass Bus service cuts in January 2019 in Surrey and East Sussex).

    I will just make the point that we have a multi-layered public transport system in this country . . . . trains for longer journeys; buses for shorter journeys and connecting journeys; taxis for awkward journeys or those that cannot be made by any other mode. It isn't perfect by any means, but if we're running buses at 2300 with 3 passengers on board, the VFM is low, and these shouldn't run - it is as simple as that. The subsidy paid for such trips should be re-directed to providing services when people might use them, or to subsidising taxis for evening bus passengers with a weekly ticket.

    There is never going to be any more money, and if we think there is, then we're in trouble. The sooner we accept that, the better.

    Sorry, Steve, but you did ask!! A very merry Bah Humbug to you all!!

    1. Lets look at what I think may be your patch, Herts which withdrew all evening subsidies. Arriva and Uno still manage basic commercial services, even if the townies have to walk a bit further to catch one of those inter-urbans (300/321/724/310/84, for instance). Yes the small ops miss out, but beggars (I mean joe public) can't be choosers.

      Districts (St. Albans, for instance) stepped in to save a few rural buses, but it's uneconomic even for them. So be it.

      I'm not sure though it's all quite so black-and-white as you make out? The operators have to make a profit, but that doesn't exclude all social responsibility. It has a bit of financial benefit too (goodwill), even though the accountants may have trouble putting a figure on it.

      Perhaps it's that game again. If the Council carried on subsidising the mid-evening stuff, might the larger operators at least, decide for convenience they can still manage a single late night bus, commercially? Everyone benefits. Well, we are talking about fantasy, aren't we? The Ops are only human and will take whatever subsidy is on offer. So like weaning babies . . .

      A merry Bah Humbug to everyone!

  5. Gentlemen, gentlemen!!! I haven't said anything yet and you're all pre-empting me!! Smurf, this is going to be a national Utopian fantasy, not Steve's night out!! Humbug!!!

  6. as one senior railwayman put it to me.

    The current arrangement allows the government to nationalise the praise and privatise the blame.

    Note how when there is something good to announce the department for transport are seen everywhere and where something goes wrong they leave the stage as quick as possible.

    It's also resulted in franchisees being banned from adding extra capacity they wanted to, because the DFT decided there wasn't enough demand. When the trains are overcrowded, the same DFT turns around and tells them to do something about the overcrowding, the same DFT who prevented them from doing so.

    The problem is people don't understand how the railway works, they do not at all understand that the railway is heavily DFT controlled and those people who are calling for nationalisation are essentially handing more power to the people who are t he root of many of the problems, as they percieve that the private operators have full control over everything.

    that's why nationalisation won't fix many of the problems, because many of the problems ARE caused by the public sector bodies themselves and until that's dealt with, natinalisation won't be the big fix people think.

    1. This is precisely why I'm nagging the Association of British Commuters to create a publication to help dispel the myths, and point the travelling public in the right direction to lay the blame for things. It's badly needed, and it's very existence will hopefully encourage some to rethink some strategies.

    2. The main thing that needs to change is that the TOC's are operated as a single integrated Network along the basis of the London Underground. The government should be taking all the commercial risk rather than try to push it onto the TOC's

      The Government owned Network Rail needs to be sorted out and they are the biggest problem at present. Properly designed modern signalling system should be highly reliable and not as now failing on a daily basis. You should be getting over 99% reliability

    3. In heated agreements with all of that.

  7. Is anyone interested though - apart from complaining?

    But the biggest problem is surely we are trying to get a quart from a pint pot, and always have - even going back to Brunel (who insisted on his own gauge too). We are a small island and land is expensive, because everyone wants the same bits. We don't have national planning . . . of anything. Even the NHS is more of a local health service where the bits don't talk to each other.

    So everything is run as a "mend and make do" job. It always has been. The result is on a good day is it just about holds together, but on a bad day it falls apart, and increasingly the bad days outnumber the good.

    Whether it's roads, railways or perhaps even buses; we know where the "pinch points" are, and the problem is our inability to do anything about them. It costs too much; and it'd be my guess that land costs are in there, right in the middle of it, somewhere.

    It was always said the the DTp (as was) always bought by-passes in the countryside because they were cheaper than doing anything in the towns, and looked better. Enshrined in the accountants bible of cost-benefit analysis. It all depends on your prejudices, of course.

    I mentioned my experience with outsourcing previously. We always started out with the good intention of getting the best out of private sector expertise, and regulating only the essentials; and ended up specifying everything. Ineptitude. But whose?

  8. "create a publication to help dispel the myths, and point the travelling public in the right direction to lay the blame for things."

    If life were that simple.

    Remind me, please. The media is one of our biggest industries. What's it for?

    1. What it's for and what it does in the main are entirely different. There is a huge gap in the market for such a publication, if marketed and produce properly. I'd quite like to be involved in filling that gap.

  9. Something to while away the waiting . . . This is the time of year for Awards (I'm told) and we are awash with them, awarded by the industry to itself, and by their fans to the industry.

    So here is the one I know you've all been waiting for, nominations invited please for the Smurf Bus Joke of the Year (to be put to a public vote, subject to all the usual excuses). The Rail Joke of the Year has been cancelled this year as the judge decided that nothing could compete with the (double) timetables fiasco . . .

    Here's your starter for (minus) 10: Q: How did we end up with First Essex? A: Someone had the bright idea to advertise jobs for Essex boys taking punters for a ride.

    1. Rumour has it too, that a re-branding may be in the offing for Konnect? - as DisKonnect, perhaps.

    2. We had 5 years of a joke when Go Ahead took over Anglian, which turned out to be a death sentence.

  10. Hi Steve, I thought you were going to place my blog onto the 'other enthusiasts site', I told you about it during the Ensign bus day. :)

    The blog is

    1. You're right! I did, and I was, but that involved my memory, which is about as reliable as a Thameslink train! Thanks for reminding me - it's up! Happy Christmas!

  11. It will be interesting to see how things work out in Wales. The Welsh Assembly has set up a company to run all the rails services in Wales with the only exception as far as I can tell being the mainline service to London

    As far as I can tell it is being run along a similar lines to the TFL rail services in that they set the fares and services levels etc

    It is early days yet so we will have to see how it pans out and whether the budget runs out