Yesterday First Great Western trains announced that it would be spending an additional £29M to improve services after it was found to be the worst performing rail franchise in Britain. I travel regularly on First Great Western and occasionally on other franchises and I can tell you that they are really bad. The cram the passengers onto trains like animals and each year they reduce then number of services (while passenger numbers are increasing - 10% per annum across the country but faster in the Thames Valley) and increase the prices (this year by around 10% for peak periods). And what do we do? Well nothing because we can't. The thing is there is no competition in the railways. I do not have a choice of rail operators to travel from my home to London. There is only First Great Western and each time it comes up they have been granted a renewal of the franchises despite the fact that they have lied repeatedly to the government and the franchise authorities in order to get it. Last time the franchise came up they promised amongst other things to increase the number of services and secondly to provide an integrated policy between their original franchise and First Great Western Link (formally Thames Trains - their only competition whom they acquired). They lied. Try travelling out on a west coast mainline service from Paddington which is scheduled to connect with a local service at Reading (say to Newbury) when there is a delay. Do they hold the connections. NO. This happens about once a month and on at least 3 occasions I have been able to watch the connecting train being sent out by the station staff from the window of the incoming "connecting" train. Is this an integrated transport system. NO. They have also reduced significantly the number of services running on non mainline routes since removing their only competition.
Is the poor service and bad treatment of the passengers and staff the fault of the management. Well not entirely we have created a model and a market which by it's very nature can ONLY reduce the quality of service, increase prices, increase customer satisfaction and reduce safety. A fairly outlandish statement until you examine the facts. When the rail system was privatised we did not create a free market and we did not introduce competition because we created a series of franchises each of which is a monopoly in it's own region but a monopoly in private and not government hands. We also separated the the running of the track from the running of the trains and set up a pseudo commercial model for the franchises to "buy" space use of the track from Network Rail. Now the management of a private company have a responsibility to maximise the shareholder return for their investors. There are only two ways to increase return on investment and those are to reduce costs and to increase revenues. Increase revenues is simple when there is no competition and the number of consumers is rising - just increase the prices the consumers have no where else to go. Now to reducing costs. Again in a monopoly position one of the best was is to reduce the quality and frequency of service. People have no ware else to go they can only keep cramming onto ever more crowded trains. They have no choice. The second way to reduce costs is to reduce what you pay your keep suppliers (in this case Network Rail). Your suppliers in turn have to reduce their costs which means reducing strategic long term investment and finding ways to cust back on running costs (ie. repairs and safety checks).
So as you can see with the privatisation of the railway we have managed to create a completely artificial market that could never have existed without the intervention of government which is designed to reduce safety, reduce service, reduce customer satisfaction and increase prices - it has been perfectly engineered to do nothing else.
And who was the mastermind of this? Well since the privatisation of the railways occurred under a labour government many people believe that it was a labour policy and design. The Tory party certainly do nothing to dispel this myth. Far from it. The truth? The architecture was designed by the last Tory government and the wheels put in motion long before they were forced out of power. In fact the process was so far gone when they left office that it was difficult if not impossible to stop. A run away train you might say ;-). So when we come to the next election and you think you might want a change of government think if you can stand they same in all our public services.
Mind you what are the current government planning to do about it. Well they announce a plan to invest to increase capacity by 10% by 2014. Some use when the number of travellers is increasing by 10% per annum and the systems is already crumbling.
Farce Great Western
First Great Western Blog