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Saturday, 24 April 2010

Why this was a big week for the rail industry

What with election fever and volcanoes, the fact that it has been a big week for the railway industry in Britain has largely been ignored by the media. I'm not talking about all those extra trains laid on by Eurostar to get people to and from Continent, nor the extra services put on by railway companies to move people around this country. I am instead talking about two pieces of news that may affect the humble traveller in the future. The first may leave you grinding your teeth, while the second may, depending on your perspective, leave you dancing for joy.


On Thursday Deutsche Bahn, (DB) Germany's national rail operator and the world's second largest transport company, took over Arriva, who run buses and trains throughout the country. They did this for the not inconsequential fee of 1.59 billion. Of course the Daily Mail went wild, bemoaning the fact that yet another British Company was now owned by the evil foreigners. What also made the situation worse for the Mail was the fact that DB was a German company, the online headline being 'Now Britain's railways are taken over... by Germany.' Of course they handily forgot that Arriva themselves have engaged in overseas ventures, currently running trains and buses in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Portugal, The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. But hey, the Mail only hates the global market place if British companies are threatened; if they are taking over companies elsewhere I suppose they see it through the prism of a new financial British Empire.

Another person that went mad, reputedly representing another interest group, was Bob Crow General Secretary of the 'Rail, Maritime and Transport Union' (RMT). Firstly, before I quote Bob, I'm going to give a warning. In the quote I will provide, it will refer to safety. But please, don't take it seriously. Anyway, are you ready? Bob said this was a "huge step in the wrong direction for rail workers and passengers". He also stated that "It should sound a warning that we're heading towards a dangerous monopoly of rail and bus services across Europe in which profit comes ahead of safety and service." There, now wasn't that fun. I think a more measured response, but equally unrealistic, came from the leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), Gerry Doherty, who said: "If Germany believes railways should be run by the state in favour of the passenger, why don't we do the same here in Britain?" In short these union chiefs simply gave rabbit-fashion sound-bites, reverting to their default positions of attacking the usual suspects of privatisation and corporate empire building. While I am against both of these things, I think that the unions should provide constructive criticism so as to stimulate discussion and allow for debate, rather than reverting to the old positions that we know they are going take. In addition, I think these unions should try and cooperate more with the industry. At some point they have to get used to the fact that the franchise system isn't going away and will have to work better with it. But then, as we'll see later, one union is.

I think that the comments of the Mail and the unions should be ignored regarding DB's new acquisition (although a consistent policy of ignoring the Mail should be adopted). A more objective approach to the takeover should be taken, weighing up the pros and cons of what DB can give to the British rail industry. Firstly lets be clear, DB is already in out midst. Firstly they already own Chiltern Railways (from January 2008) as well as what was known as 'English, Welsh and Scottish Railways', Britain's largest freight haulier, now called DB Shenker. This therefore gives us, especially in the case of Chiltern Railways, a good benchmark as to the level of service we passengers can expect from the new owners.

Guess what, Chiltern is a pretty darn good company. Over the period of 10th January to 6th of February 2010 94.2% of all their trains arrived within 5 minutes of schedule, the fourth highest Train Operating Company (TOC) for performance. Further the company service very rarely has less than 95% of trains arriving outside of the 5 minute window in any measured period. In addition Chiltern was the first railway company to pilot e-ticketing, allowing customers to print off their ticket or have it sent to their phone as a bar-code which is then scanned at the station. Since April 5th 2008 40,000 such tickets have been sold, significantly speeding up the time passengers spend waiting and queuing at stations, and improving their overall convenience. Further, on 14th December 2008, and in connection with Network Rail, the company opened a new station, Aylesbury Vale Parkway. This is a new terminus sited 2 miles north of Aylesbury, that reopened this part of the line. The company has also spent considerable money on improving and refurbishing their rolling stock.

Lastly, Chiltern agreed the Evergreen 3 project with Network Rail in January 2010. Firstly, this is to upgrade some Chiltern's main line, as well as doubling the line between Oxford and Bichester, allowing trains to run from Marylebone to Oxford direct. Secondly it will upgrade the Chiltern Main Line between Marylebone and Birmingham, that will allow 100 mph running, reducing journey times from 117 minutes to a mere 92. Overall, Network Rail say that their costs will be recovered by a 'facilities charge' that Chiltern will pay for the next 12 years (the charge to be taken over by whoever holds the franchise in 2022 when Chiltern's expires).

Chiltern also benefits from a longer franchise that most TOCs, and in 2002 the then owners signed a 20 year contract to run the service. This means that the company has been able to propose a raft of bold projects that will improve journey times, enhance the passenger experience of rail travel and make the company more efficient. A lot of the proposals that I am going to cite were initiated under the previous owners, Laing, however DB have not, to my knowledge, put a hold on any of them. Indeed many of them have been proposed after DB took over in January 2008.

In cooperation with Network Rail they have a range of improvements They want to lengthen platforms at South Ruislip, West Ruislip, Saunderton, Kings Sutton, Sudbury Hill Harrow, Sudbury and Harrow Road and Northolt Park to accommodate eight coach trains to improve capacity. They hope to add an extra track (to make the number up to four) between South Ruislip (Northolt Junction) and West Ruislip, double the line between Princes Risborough to Aylesbury and reopen the link between Oxford and Princes Risborough. In addition, their goal is to build an interchange at West Hampstead which would allow passengers to connect with London Overground, Jubilee Line, Metropolitan Line and First Capital Connect services. Further, they wish to re-open the line between Aylesbury to Bedford via Milton Keynes and the line from Oxford to Bedford. Lastly, and I do think this is a little 'pie in the sky,' they also want to extend Oyster Pay-as-you-go to Aylesbury and High Wycombe.

These are just some of the many ideas for improving the service that they have provided. I think whether you agree or disagree with the franchise system or corporate empire building, under DB Chiltern has consistently acted as we would wish a franchise holder to. They have attempted to improve the service for travellers by investing in the infrastructure, improving the rolling stock, running to time and making the traveller's journey more pleasant. Therefore Chiltern have become since 2002 an industry leader, acting as a benchmark against which all other companies are measured. DB's recent takeover of them has not affected this position and has even improved it. When DB acquired Chiltern in January 2008, they knew what an ambitious and forward thinking company they were getting, as well as the fact that they had a long-term franchise commitment. As such because Chiltern have continued with their ambitious plans and still generate new ones, I think that this must represent that DB also have an ethos of network, performance and service improvement.

Therefore, part of me is pleased that DB have acquired Arriva. It will expand the benchmarks against which those companies that do not perform well and which are driven by veracious profit motive, such as Stagecoach and National Express, can be measured. Further it will allow the passenger and service orientated ethos that Chiltern posses to spread to other parts of the British Railway industry. Lastly, and most importantly, we may see more investment, better trains and a better ride for our buck on Arriva owned TOCs.

East Coast

Earlier in my post I mentioned that I thought Bob Crow of the RMT and Gerry Doherty of the TSSA should try and work with the franchise system as it isn't going anywhere soon. The potential for unions to interact with the franchise system was given full expression on Monday when the Train Driver's union, The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), announced that they were going to bid for the East Coast franchise that is currently run by the state after National Express had the franchise stripped from them. They will run it as a not-for-profit company, meaning that all the revenue could be re-invested in the service and potentially allowing the fares to be reduced.

Surprisingly, this news did not receive much coverage, probably the result of a big ash cloud. Indeed I had to be alerted to it by my friend Katie (thanks Katie). But this is very important news, and if ASLEF succeed in their goal then it may signal a change in the way that we start thinking about Britain's rail franchises. Firstly, as I have stated, we all have to get used to the fact that the franchise system isn't going away and that re-nationalisation is not on the cards. None of the three major parties have committed to it in their manifestos and with the massive national debt it would not feasible for the government to pay off the different Train Operating Companies and take over the services. Therefore ASLEF have shown us that their may be cooperative route to pseudo-nationalisation, that will reform the privatised network that will keep costs low, improve services and reduce fares. With sketchy information it is not clear how this proposal by ASLEF will pan out, but I feel that it is an exciting move.


Perhaps the events of this week, have signalled the start of the 'mature phase' of the privatised railway network, where an ethos of good service and dedication to customers can proliferate and where new ideas come to the fore. Perhaps, even, there may be a case for saying this is when the privatised network may even start to work, and maybe, at last, we can start again to have a railway network we can be proud of. But then again...we'll see.

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