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When the great nationalised utilities, rail, gas, electricity telecommunications and so on, were created in the 1940s, public ownership equated to the organisations being run for the public good. But as society's expectations rose so did the propensity to complain. And it was difficult for the dissatisfied consumer in the street to take on a monopoly supplier.
Thus, industry consumer councils and committees came into being. Their role was to give the consumer a voice at the top level of each industry.
In the case of British Rail, which though nationalised, still reflected the geographical organisation of the precursor private railways, eight regional Rail Users Consultative Committees (RUCC) were established. From north to south there were RUCCs for Scotland , the North East and the North West , the Midlands , Eastern England , Wales , Western England and Southern England . For the capital there was the London Transport Users committee.
These were autonomous organisations responsible for consumer representation in their areas. There was also the Central Rail Users consultative Committee (CRUCC) which coordinated the activities or the RUCCs, pulled together the annual statistics and provided the focal point for links with Central Government.
But it was always the case that the CRUCC/RUCC relationship was that of a federation, rather than a hierarchy.
Compared with, the other nationalised industries, British Rail had a hard time with its ‘watchdogs'. First, railways were unique in having a large number of enthusiasts. Second, thanks to Geoffrey Freeman Allen's creation of Modern Railways as a trade and technical magazine available over the counter within the enthusiast community there were tens of thousands of who were both interested in and well informed about the commercial and technical aspects of the industry.
Thus, where other the other nationalised industries tended to have consumer representatives from the great and the good, the RUCCs had a leavening of quasi professionals among the lay members. Even worse, for BR, as the expertise of the RUCCs grew, they were able to ask progressively more penetrating questions at their meeting as with local railway management.
Clearly, the quality of the representation varied across the committees. But the best RUCCs, to judge by the remarks of contemporary BR managers, were a genuine thorn in the corporate flesh.
That said, their main role was to intercede on behalf of passengers who had failed to get satisfaction after complaining to BR. The RUCC annual reports provided the only independent customer satisfaction, or rather dissatisfaction, reports and thus dominated media coverage. Behind the scenes work on timetabling, station opening and new train facilities were less newsworthy.
With privatisation, the RUCCs needed to be found a home and were put under the wing of the Rail Regulator. During franchising their task of representing the interests of rail users included responding to draft Passenger Service Requirements issued by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising.
Under the 1994 Railways Act, the RUCCs also gained the power to refer to the Regulator any cases where a satisfactory response could not be obtained to a passenger's complaint.
But experience revealed an anomaly. OPRAF was responsible for the passenger railway and while the Regulator was tasked with protecting rail users' interests in the broadest sense, there was little he could do on behalf of Mr and Mrs Average Traveller since the SSRA held the franchise purse strings and ran the performance incentive schemes.
So, all change again. And under the forthcoming Transport Act, ‘Cruccs and Ruccs' will become the Rail Passengers' Council (RPC) and Rail Passengers' Committee and become the responsibility of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority. And if you go to the CRUCC offices in the City you will find that the RPC is already in business, complete with a snazzy new logo.
This forward policy is the work of the RPC's new Chairman Stewart Francis who took over on 1 February this year, having been Chairman of the Eastern England RUCC for the previous three years.
Francis has a very different background to other CRUCC Chairman I have met over the years. His business career has been in commercial radio, starting as a presenter with LBC in 1973.
From there he went into programme management and then into general management becoming managing director of a medium sized radio company. Since that company was taken over he has become non-executive director and chairman of three East Anglian radio stations, does ‘a little bit of local broadcasting'.
He also runs a small sponsorship company which with the radio interests, plus membership of the Cambridge Health Authority, leaves him free for two days a week as Chairman of the PRC.
So, new RPC, new logo, new owner, new powers. How does the new Chairman see the role of the RPC as opposed to that of the Cruccs and Ruccs?
‘I believe that the RPC is now part of the solution, where the RUCCs were part of the problem for the railways.' He agrees that CRUCC was seen in that light by the industry and by Government because it was ‘always talking about complaints'.
‘My vision (as Chairman)was to cast aside the crusty CRUCC/RUCC image and build a powerful consumer representative organisation that instead of throwing stones from the outside, got stuck into improving railways in this country'.
To this, says Francis, ‘you've got to get more proactive, get your hands dirty'. He believes that ‘in a very short period we've started to reveal our true credentials and the aim of the new name and logo is to bring out this change.
Certainly, the change is not just cosmetic. In the first six months of this year six policy papers have been published, focusing on the emerging franchise replacement programme and fares and establishing the role of the RPCs in the new world of 20 year franchises.
‘There's been a lot of change in this organisation', says Francis, ‘when did this organisation publish six policy papers in six months that have caught the attention of policy makers?'
But surely, the strength of the RUCCs was their knowledge of the railway and contacts with local railway management. This meant that a good RUCC was into detail that never reached the BR Board – until CRUCC raised it. Wasn't it a case of throwing stones from inside?
Stewart Francis agrees and adds that the organisation was not ‘terribly good' at making public the very good work that was going on in the RUCCs.
Now, with the world changing again, Francis believes that the RPC has spotted the opportunity to play a larger role and has the courage to task it on ‘with a lot of encouragement from government which is telling the industry to listen to what the passenger wants'. ‘If we do not have the ability to articulate the passenger's needs, given our organisation and funding, then I don't know who else will – in a coherent fashion'.
While he has raised the profile of the RPC, when I ask Francis about the Chairman's remit, he immediately emphasises that above all he has to respect the fact that he is Chairman of a federal organisation or independent committees with independently appointed chairmen and members.
As the leader of an alliance, he has no powers to say ‘this is what you do'. Even so he thinks that it has been possible to pull together a coherent national strategy while the Committees remain able to speak robustly on specific issues in their areas.
This brings us back to the contribution to be made through the traditional strengths of the RUCCs, local knowledge. ‘If you look at the Office of the Rail Regulator and the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, the RPC is the only regionally based source of information they have on passenger matters. We have a lot of intelligence that should be useful to others'.
Thus he sees the RPC, and himself as Chairman, as a strong independent and equal partner for the Rail Regulator and the SSRA Chairman in the process of building a better railway.
That's a very different agenda to past CRUCC Chairman. But it is a valid one once you get used to the fact that the SSRA is not a super OPRAF but an over arching rail body. Thus, passenger rail is now part, albeit a large part, of the SSRA's remit, rather than OPRAF's sole concern.
But while rail freight is an external lobby, Francis has been keen to ensure that the relationship with the SSRA and the ORR is conducted from within, not without. ‘I've been very keen to get within the centre of the process and he sees the appointment of a RPC member as the non executive director responsible for passenger interests as a positive example of this aim.
All this activity is a deliberate break with the past emphasis on passenger dissatisfaction. ‘I don't think that it particularly helps passengers in the long run to keep saying over and over again “performance is bumping along it hasn't changed one in ten trains is late”. We all know that, we're fed up with it and we want something done about it. So the big issue is what's being done to change things'.
This is said with some feeling. Francis quotes the franchise replacement as an example of the way forward. All the Committees have put their assessments of passenger aspirations to the SSRA. This has been done in consultation with rail user groups and local authorities. There have been meetings with TOCs
‘So the SSRA is sitting there with thousands of aspirations, says Francis. I don't expect that every aspiration will be met because the SSRA and the TOCs have their own ideas, but those aspirations are now in the mix, they have to be taken into consideration and we will be watching very closely to see that they are'.
There is also the issue of how the SSRA will take the track record of train operator's into account. Francis is clear that you have to take into account what the TOCs contracted to do.
For example with the first range of franchises mostly based on the lowest bid rather than building a better railway, InterCity West coast is an obvious exception, then, says Francis, a TOC might say that its track record matches what it signed up to deliver. Equally, the TOC could point out that if the SSRA asked for something better and was prepared to pay for it, then it would have a go a delivering that.
So, you get what you pay for. But, ‘ask me whether I think all TOCs have done all that they can within their power to create the best railway they can for passengers, then I'm very critical'. But he also points out that absolute performance can be misleading. A TOC born with the infrastructure equivalent of a silver spoon in its mouth may have done well, but not as well as it should, while a TOC struggling with ld equipment may have a worse performance while doing better than expected.
So an overall balanced view will be needed in evaluating franchise replacement bidders, including passenger aspirations and track record in around half a dozen criteria.
So will there be a reduced emphasis on complaints in the RPCs' annual reports?
‘In terms of reports, probably yes, says Francis, in terms of the Committees' workloads, no. He reminds me that the RPCs will continue to have a statutory duty to deal with complaints and since privatisation the volume of complaints has risen ‘enormously'.
Not only are there more complaints, instead of dealing with the local BR passenger manager, there are now several TOCs. As a result, last year all of the RPCs increased their full time staff from three to four, ‘purely to keep up with the existing workload'.
But that is not Francis' vision for the future. First of all there is a substantial amount of new work involved in franchise replacement. When that process is completed, he expects that the RPCs will be ‘thoroughly involved' in monitoring the performance of the railway and assisting the SSRA with its monitoring functions.
This brings us to RPC dot org dot uk . Regional committees devolve the work of the RPC to regional level. The new ‘Network of Networks' is intended to use the internet to introduce a further tier of contacts spreading out from the regional organisation to individual passengers.
Paper based reporting tends to come into the ‘too difficult' category. You have to print, address and send out the forms, then the recipient has to find a pen and time to fill it, stuff the form in an envelope and then go down to the post office. Life's too short for all that. So questionnaires tend to be long, lacking both timeliness and detail.
In contrast, you can fire off an e-mail to the RPC's local network of passengers asking for their views on the proposal to replace IC125 with Pacers, the recipient reads it, clicks on reply, types a response, clicks on send and the survey us done.
Francis sees this as ensuring that the RPCs are as ‘democratically as possible', by involving as many passengers in its processes as it can, He emphasises that the Network of Networks will be a ‘sharing of information' which will mean that both passengers and the RPC will be better informed, the RPC having ‘instant consultation at the push of a button on anything from a timetable issue to the SRA wanting the public's views on a new parkway station'.
Overall, Stewart Francis sees the network of networks (N2N, surely) as a ‘thoroughly fresh idea in consumerism in this country'.
There is also scope for direct input at TOC level where Francis sees the RPC as providing the eyes and ears not only of the SSRA and ORR, but also train operators. In his former PRC, a ‘minor complaints procedure' is being trialled.
PRC members carry forms which are used to report problems they observe on the railway – say a broken fence. Copies of the form are faxed to the TOC and the Eastern England RPC office.
Subsequently the problem will be checked to see if remedial action has been taken. If it hasn't the TOC is reminded. The point of this initiative is to provide feedback, without clogging up Committee meetings with minor details.
He hopes this will help TOC managers who can't be everywhere all the time. Nor can RPC members, but in the future he sees the Network of Networks being brought into the minor complaints procedure'.
Having been a RUCC Chairman through the first years of franchised operation, I wondered what Francis saw as the weaknesses of the private railway.
Fragmentation was his immediate reaction, but after a period of reflection he added ‘the lack of new ideas and adventurous thought'.
Warming to them he continues ‘I'm surprised that given that the government has said it is putting another £29billion in, £60billion if you add the private investment, then I still don't see a “wow” factor. I don't think “gosh this is what is going to happen to railway stations in the future”'.
Reflecting on the annual survey of TOC MDs in Informed Sources he says ‘I think we have to closely look at the fact that this industry is still being managed by the people who have been managing it under a public structure largely speaking and I wonder where some of the new ideas are going to come from'.
He's right. There isn't much wow, or at least new wow, in the Ten year plan. Looking back, the last wow I can remember was the East Coast electrification and that blistering 3hr 29min London Edinburgh run.
In fact, Francis adds its not just a lack of innovation, you can get whatever is the negative of wow. He instances ATOCs recent proposals for a simplified ticketing structure, something the RPC has been pressing for. ‘Good idea, all in favour. But when it was announced ATOC started talking about two tier stations'.
This means that stations with a lot of passengers would sell every kind of ticket, but at smaller stations only a basic range of tickets would be available. ‘I heard that and thought “is this not just another step backwards”'?
He sees ATOC putting profits before the customer. ‘Surely with a computer system you can sell any ticket at any station and then it's just a matter of staff. More people talk to me about this than anything else. It is staff that give rail travelle5rs reassurance for a whole range of reasons. It strikes me that at a time when w3e should be rebuilding rural rail services we've still go t this old thinking that small stations don't matter so much'
Once again the RPC Chairman warms to a theme. ‘I know there will be fewer people going through, but other than at the smallest halt, one expects certain basic facilities'.
This specific issue leads him onto what looks like becoming an RPC yardstick. ‘With every decision that is made you have ask “is this going to attract more people back on the railway”. If it's not, forget it, think of something else to do'.
He likens it to Barclays' closure of its rural branches. ‘Does the railway industry want publicity like that, he asked, a note of incredulity entering his voice?
Another effect of fragmentation identified by Francis Sharing of best practice should be at the forefront. I'm no6 convinced of how much that goes on'.
So much for weaknesses, what about rail's strengths?
First, there's the heritage of rail, second, he believes that despite the complaints the RPC receives, that the British public still has a basic affinity to railways' and finally there is the nation3ide network which can for the backbone of an integrated transport strategy.
Stewart Francis rates GNER's services highly which, living in Peterborough , he uses regularly. But when people visit him and he asks how they will be travelling, it is invariably by car. ‘I say, “you're joking, why aren't you coming by train”? But their previous experience of rail may have been on 30-40 year old slam door stock with a thousand other people crammed into the carriage. The thought doing that when they don't have to and can sit in their comfortable air conditioned car doesn't even dawn on them'.
There are so many railway supporters around. You don't get people saying I'm gas supporter or an electricity supporter or a water supporter, but people do feel an affinity to rail and they do want it to work well
Stewart Francis is adamant that in future the RPC has to be not only thorough in terms of detail, but also better informed on why problems exist. This is why the RPC is insisting on ‘casusation data' on train performance. This is a new term for me and I ask him to explain it.
‘At the moment we know ho many trains are late or been cancelled, but we don't know why, we don't know whose fault it is. When you look at the performance of a piece of railway you can say whether delays are down to Railtrack, the operators or TOC on TOC'.
If that information is available Francis believes the RPC will be more effective in seeking improvements for passengers from the TOCs or Railtrack. ‘We have a blunt instrument at the moment and we want to make it sharper'.
Yes, but Railtrack, which has been reducing its delays when the TOCs have been getting worse, has pointedly not briefed against the TOCs when the Regulator has been fining the company heavily for not getting better fast enough.
Stewart rejects my suggestion that this is a mature attitude on Railtrack's part. ‘I don't care how mature an industry view it is, you can also see it as some sort of stitch up within the industry to keep the passenger from knowing whose fault it is that their train's running late'.
That said, he believes that Railtrack has deserved the attention given to its performance. In the early days they were slow to spot the problem, slow to invest, they kept the business pretty much to themselves.
Now he sees that situation changing and he doesn't want the causuation detail to ‘bash Railtrack over the head'. He sees the detail as helping the RPC's understanding of issues, ask questions about why something is going wrong and seek improvements on an informed basis'.
Francis also sees the injection of additional capital and revenue support for the railway as requiring performance to be monitored even more closely. ‘e have to hav4e better performance reguires, they have to be entirely transparent and passengers organisations ought to have the right to have as many statistics as they possibly can, subject to commercial confidentiality'. He describes this as the ‘brave new world we should all aspire to'.
Doesn't this go against his desire to get away from the image of the Cruccs and Ruccas' as a complaints machine? ‘No, complaints are an important and continuing part of our statutory duty, but what I want to talk about are the real issues that can make the railway better, spotlight where things are going wrong and where attention needas to be focused'.
So instead of press releases commenting on the lastest batch of SSRA performance statistics ‘and isn't that dreadful', expect the RPC to seek solutions to problems and use its authority to apply pressure for remedial action in the appropriate places.
He is also critical of the current approach to performance. ‘Curre00ntly we look at performance statistics and say who's up- well done, who's down, rotten performance. That's such a blunt instrument that it's almost meaningless'. What the statistics do not show is whether a TOC which is 2% should really have risen by 5% because they came off such a low bench mark that anyone could have run the company and shown an improvement. Equally, a TOC whose performance hasn't improved might be performing ‘wonderfully well' within the constraints of infrastructure or equipment.
So a much closer analysis is needed. For example GNER inherited a reasonable infrastructure. ‘Their performance on the face of it is good, but is their scope for growth in that performance, that is what we need to look at'.
So before the RPC Chairman starts judging which TOCs are doing well and which doing badly he will neeed much more information. So at the moment he is asking ‘lots of questions'.
We have set out to change the culture of the organisation to reflect what is required now. We need more funding to do that job, At the moment in discussions with the ORR and the SSRA for the transition of the organisation
Is it a good move. He pauses. ‘The reality is that the Regulator is independent so there the RPC has a greater degree of independence. With SSRA it's closer to Government so is anybody going to pull out string. I don't care who sponsors us provided we have the necessary funds to do the job and they understand that we have a completely independent voice and sponsorship is not mixed up with management.
To conclude I ask Stewart Francis whether he has any personal railway bees in his bonnet. With only a short ummm, he comes up with two.
His first ‘bee' is that certain staff are still not thinking how best to help the passenger. This is one of my ‘bees' too, which had stung on the way to the interview.
A single ticket window open, someone making a convoluted enquiry about a possible future journey while the seven eight minutes I and a growing queue behind me had allowed to buy a ticket ticked away. It never occurred to the ticket clerk to ask the vague inquirers if they would mind waiting while he served today's passengers whose train would leave shortly.
Francis' second personal complaint is about the general state of some stations, which he finds ‘appalling'. ‘If I have a vision for anything in terms of stations, I believe that other than at the smallest halt, at a reasonable time of day you should be able to go in, buy a ticket, stand somewhere warm out of the rain until your train comes and board it safely'. To look at some graffiti ridden stations on a cold February morning with the wind gusting the rain, I just wonder how anyone can see that as the travel experience for the 21 st Century'.
There speaks a traveller of the Fen Country with its lazy winds. He is still surprised that railway managers can't see the problem. ‘People in the railway have called me nutty as a fruitcake for going on about being protected from the weather at smaller stations.
But with 25% growth since privatisation and the Government funding another 50% in its ten year plan ‘why can't you sit in a room with a coffee machine and wait for your train? We have to stop thinking of public transport as something second class. The railways are not going grow if we don't get away from that “it's good enough thinking”.
|It is appalling that broken down stations are the entrance to this magnificent form of transport that can make transport accessible, affordable and environmentally less harmful|
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