Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

First Great Western close to losing its franchise

with 2 comments

The Guardian

Regular readers will know that I am, on the whole, against privatisation. That of British Railways was done very badly indeed, and has resulted in a huge increase in public expenditure, most of it being drained off to investor’s pockets, not spent to the benefit of the travelling public. But this story shows a feature of the contracting model that is worth noticing.

First Great Western has a really bad record. And now Ruth Kelly, the UK Transport Secretary, is going to do something about it

Transport secretary Ruth Kelly today ordered FGW to buy more carriages, increase passenger compensation payments and hire more staff or else the franchise will be terminated. The Department for Transport found that FGW, voted the worst service in Britain last month, misled passengers by under-reporting the number of service cancellations last year.

She added that instead of fining the franchise, which operates throughout the west country as well as the London-to-Cardiff route, she had imposed an improvements package including higher compensation for commuters affected by endemic punctuality problems.

“Any penalty would be paid to central Government. Having considered this carefully, and given that a penalty would not, itself, help passengers, I have opted instead for passengers to receive a better benefits package,” she said.

Now let’s imagine that Translink had been contracting out the delivery of services, instead of being required to give them to one of its single purpose subsidiary “companies”. And as a passenger you had been subject to pass ups, or cancellations due to staff shortages, or failure to provide an advertised service like bike racks after dark. Don’t you think that this model might have produced more satisfactory outcomes than press releases and soothing platitudes?

If FGW do not deliver what Secretary Kelly has told them to do, they will be booted, and someone else brought in to run the trains who can do a better job. Any chance of that happening here? If the Coast Mountain Bus Company fails to deliver adequate service, there is absolutely no penalty at all. Indeed it is usually made as difficult as possible for an outsider to determine whose responsibility it is to carry the can for many failures. And it is always easy to fall back on “circumstances beyond our control”.

Come to that, given another story in my local freebie this morning, have you ever heard of any of the contractors to Partnerships BC being required to do anything to smarten up? So far, as far as I can see, the fact that they deliver profits on time to their shareholders is all that matters. Clean hospitals? Fines or requirements to make up to those harmed? You must be kidding.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 26, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Posted in privatisation

2 Responses

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  1. Stephen,

    “have you ever heard of any of the contractors to Partnerships BC being required to do anything to smarten up?

    I am no fan of the Liberals or privatization but I remember hearing about this:

    MAXIMUS BC [Google search], in the first few months of the contract to outsource MSP processing was assessed a number of financial penalties for poor performance / response times.


    P.S. Happy B-day


    February 26, 2008 at 10:07 pm

  2. I have a long standing grievance, which in truth is not so much against First Great Western as the incompetents and geographically challenged numpties, who award it contracts. To some extent we cannot blame FGW for bidding to deliver the specified services even when there is no user demand, because the paying customer is the franchise awarder.

    I live in a one-horsed cathedral city called Hereford in the Welsh Marches, which sits on the main Cardiff to Manchester line, a good track with a poor Arriva trains service, based on two coaches taking two hours for the 100 miles to Manchester. Hereford is also the junction for a single track branch line which weaves Eastwards through Worcestershire and across the Cotswolds before it gets on to twin track at Oxford for the last half of its journey to London.

    Hereford has a population of 55000. Every morning and several times later in the day, FGW runs a full 8 coach and two loco HST along the single track to London. They leave Hereford virtually empty and don’t get anywhere near high occupancy till Worcester by which time 20% of the journey is complete. There is absolutely no justification for running these trains. A three coach shuttle, which continues to central Birmingham, would be perfectly adequate to provide the service to Worcester.

    Those in the majority which doesn’t pay its fares actually take a longer, more expensive, but faster route to London , South to Newport and then change to the Cardiff to London train.

    When not in use the HST trains are moved empty to Bristol about 80 miles away. So in order to carry passengers from Worcester, a typical train travels about 120 miles empty first in order to run the 120 mile journey.

    When I wrote to complain to the Strategic Rail Authority I was fobbed off on to FGW on the grounds that this was an operational, not an infrastructure matter. I had to explain in words of one syllable that running empty HSTs across the track is definitely an infrastructure issue. I received a 60 page consultation document on running inter city services over branch lines in response. I somehow doubt if that consultation exercise bore any fruit.

    What’s so frustrating is that the gross inefficiency is clearly there for all to see, but no one has any incentive to correct it.

    Steve Horsfield

    March 9, 2008 at 9:46 am

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