Return to Archive -by date - by topic - 2002.
On 9 October SRA Chairman Richard Bowker nailed his manifesto to the door of the broad church that is the increasingly de-privatised railway. Ostensibly a 'consultation document', ‘West coast strategy' is, in fact, a naked statement of intent, the SRA's Schlieffen plan for the state's reconquest of its out of control railways.
In 53 pages the strategy document slays sacred cows left right and centre – not least the Virgin business plan for the InterCity West Coast franchise. About the only nod to the 1993 Railways Act is the sur-title ‘consultation'. But in truth there is as much chance of train operators standing on their trampled rights as a dissenting voice when the Iraqi parliament sings happy birthday to Saddam Hussein.
Barring some martyr to the cause of privatisation, access contracts will be annulled. Silverlink will be unilaterally truncated at Rugby to provide an additional path for Virgin's four London-Birmingham trains an hour. We are. of course, guilty of an anachronism in using these Franchise titles; we should have said the North London Lines and West Coast Service Delivery Units (SDU).
Gone is the belief that private train operators would identify their passengers' need and provide services to meet them. Peak and off peak service frequencies are now to be centrally determined. SDUs will be instructed to run relief services, such as St Pancras-Manchester, in their existing paths.
Freight appears to be a winner in the great shake-up. Paths have been identified in detail, including during the daytime peak hours. Double heading is decreed by the SRA to avoid investment in long passing loops.
This highlights another centralised role – the specification of traction and rolling stock performance. High speed daytime parcels will have to run at Pendolino speeds to optimise the use of paths. The North London Lines SDU wlll need new high power 12 car EMUs.
Good news there for the ROSCOs, especially since the only customer now for passenger rolling stock will be the SRA. Governments were ever good customers.
Meanwhile, train operating companies whose subsidy profiles have collapsed, and are now on financial life support, report micromanagement from 55 Victoria Street . Two TOC Directors under the iron heel of the new regime have, separately, made the identical comment; 'you have to ask the SRA if you want to have a pee'.
Union negotiators paint the SRA as the puppet master behind TOC management on the other side of the pay negotiation table. Union leaders ask why, if the SRA is going to intervene, why not go the whole hog and bring back national pay negotiation?
The Unions are, of course, teasing, since playing the companies in a balkanised employee base off against each other has leapfrogged drivers' wages, in particular, up the pay scale ratings. But we would not be surprised to see some form of devolved co-ordinated bargaining introduced in the SDUs, based on geographical area rather than operator.
No surprise then, that the shortlist for the Mersey SDU is devoid of bus operators and existing franchisees and full of facilities managers and foreign operators. Their lack of experience of old-style franchising seems to have worked in their favour. Small wonder that Swiss Railays, despite a partnership with Laing - an island of competence in a sea of storm-tossed TOCs - has decided to pull out of the UK
And, above all, no wonder, then, that franchise replacement is making glacially slow progress. Bidding documents for the Northern franchise promised months ago have yet to be circulated. That the latest guidance to Greater Anglia bidders is to expect their invitations to tender in November, but are not holding their breath. And that Trans-Pennine has become the franchise that time forget.
Not that we are complaining. With so much uncertainty on infrastructure investment, and the passenger market on a plateau, it makes sense to give two year extensions. It also creates more Stepford TOCs, who concentrate on running the railway and do not bother their pretty little heads with strategy or profit.
Nor has the famed ‘concordat' saved the Rail Regulator from the iconoclasts. Tom Winsor's first significant achievement as Rail Regulator – was the imposition of Condition 7 as an addition to Railtrack's Network Licence. .
Conditon 7 required Railtrack to meet the 'reasonable requirements' of its customer. Railtrack did indeed try to meet the needs of each of the train operating companies on the West Coast Main Line. But, with hindsight it was doomed to fail.
As SRA Managing Director Strategic Planning Jim Steer points out, with Licence Condition 7, ‘every single operator could think “that's what I'm entitled to, that's what I want you, Railtrack, to go and deliver for me”'. But, ‘with so many operators, you get an ever increasing bill but, in fact you never manage to do what everyone wants either'.
Add this to the SRA riding roughshod over access rights and service patterns, today on the WCML, tomorrow who knows where, and the role of the Regulator seems set to wither away as privatisation is destroyed by its own inconsistencies. His last, and greatest task could be protecting the taxpayer against West Coast Route Modernisation cost over-runs
Sooner or later, the Government and SRA will have to acknowledge that Network rail is British Rail with more subsidy and borrowing facilities. Alistair Darling made a significant step to coming out when he said at the Party conference that the "fundamental difference" with Network Rail was that "it will be publicly owned'
Clearly, none of this will go down well with old-railway managers who thought that privatisation would free them from the dead hand of the Treasury and the iron grip of John ‘cost-cutter' Welsby. Already there are mutterings about the expanding numbers being employed by the SRA and questions raised over whether there are enough competent people to run a centrally directed railway.
But this is what happens when a strong man emerges in the midst of anarchy. You may not like what Richard Bowker is doing, but at least he is doing something.
And remember that he knows that if he does not get a grip, does not make the railway perform better, does not sort out the West Coast Route Modernisation, does not get tilting Pendolinos running between London and Manchester in close to two hours, the political embarrassment will be such that it will be the bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver in the billiard room.