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Strategy: A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
New Oxford Dictionary of English
In various sports new managers profess to a three year programme. The first year will be spent learning. In the second year weaknesses will be rectified, the team strengthened and plans laid. And in the third year the victories will come.
At the Strategic Rail Authority Sir Alastair Morton's career as Chairman has followed just such a trajectory. Sir Alastair took over a Team Manager of Albion Railways Disunited in April 1999 and pending legislation – and a budget - he had no option but to learn.
In year two he started strengthening his management team – the while going to his ‘Chairman' Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott for a bigger budget to buy more and better players. And now, it is his third year, which started two months early on 1 February. He got the money and all the Albion Railways fans are looking for victory.
Because not only hasn't Sir Alastair laid down his game plan for achieving John Prescott's ambition of an ex-panded railway, he is quite clear that it is not his job to take such an initiative. Thus the long awaited and oft postponed SRA ‘Strategic Plan' is now a ‘Strategic Agenda'.
And as you can see from Sir Alastair's own words, what we were due to get as this issue hit the bookstalls was the equivalent of an invitation to a Focus Group. When everyone in the railway has answered all the questions, the SRA will take the highest common factor, lowest common denominator or root mean square of the views expressed and call it a strategy, to be published ‘in the Autumn'.
The strategic agenda will be a series of questions to be answered. It is not a plan you can sit down and read quietly on what to do. This disappoints the Stalinists in the media and veterans of industry but the SRA is not here to tell you when to blow your nose.
Sir Alastair Morton
Skipping lightly over the question of why the Chairman of the SRA believes that a Group of bus operators who have presided over the systemic decline of their own industry are the obvious people to come up with a strategy that will grow rail passengers by 50% over the next ten years, can we draw readers attention to the new phenomenon we have called ‘Morton's fork'?
To make a sensible bid for a franchise, or a public/private partnership, or a new freight facility, you need to know the framework within which you and your investment will operate. But the SRA claims that it can't provide that framework until it has your views on what should be done.
And as we can see, left to their own devices, passenger train operators come up with some disparate views. Note how Sea containers, having been rattled by the expansive Virgin/Stagecoach proposal for an East Coast high speed line, has decided to similarly go for broke in its South West Trains bid. Thus we have visionary Sea Containers, with Brunelian vigour, planning tunnels under Wimbledon and London while dour Stagecoach plays it tight with early delivery of new trains and more seats and civil engineering spectaculars writ small.
All these franchise bids are valid, most if not all carry consultants' fees running into seven figures and, because the SRA doesn't know what it wants, are all equally speculative. Bidding for a franchise is like an anti aircraft box barrage, in which you blaze away at a point in the sky in the hope that Sir Alastair Morton's wishes and your submission will coincide.
Meanwhile, the franchise renewal programme is falling apart as we write. While National Express and Group Four profess enthusiasm, out understanding is that neither was prepared to bid to the death for the Central Trains franchise, even assuming you knew how much of it would be left when, or if, it was let. Not having let Trans-Pennine Express, or created the new Northern Franchise, or got anywhere with Thameslink 2000 or Wales Rail or Wessex, the SRA has now had to renegotiate sundry franchise extensions, the increased subsidy also covering restructuring where necessary.
Of course, it is not all the SRA's fault that the team having run out on the pitch is now tripping over its own bootlaces. Railtrack's financial crisis, which means that the Chiltern Railways replacement franchise is parked until Railtrack knows whether it can sign up to £150million infrastructure enhancement over the next five years, is not of the SRA's making. Nor is the uncertainty over the passenger businesses post Hatfield that will inevitably affect franchise bids. But a robust strategy would have made it much easier to navigate these troubled times.
Meanwhile, with all the political pundits forecasting an election on 3 May, the Government must now be wondering, two years after the new manager was appointed, where are the expected victories? And, as we have seen with the back tracking on the Underground PPP, the Government will do anything to avoid bad news from the railways before the election.
So if, as seems inevitable, the Government enters the election in damage limitation mode and, as seems likely, John Prescott bows out of transport in the new cabinet, it could be new faces all round in the Board room and on the bench at Albion Railways. All for the want of a strategy.