Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Government washes its hands over trains fiasco

A 90 minute debate this morning at Westminster gave MPs from a large part of Southern England chance to vent their anger about the failures of First Great Western in providing decent commuter services. MPs from Wantage, Oxford, Romsey, Plymouth, Bath, Bristol, Cornwall and Newbury all told horror stories about their local services - as one MP put it, people are now standing "three to a toilet" on some services, and second class tickets are now known as 'standing class' tickets. The recent rail protest issued fake tickets with the destination "Hell and back".

The way I see it, FGW management have clearly made a mess of things. They say the new rolling stock they took over from the Wessex services was unreliable - so how come the Wessex services ran a full timetable in the weeks leading up to the changeover? They say their new maintenance depot in Bristol isn't fully ready - but whose fault is that? They claim that enough carriages are 'not available' - when there are unused carriages sitting in sidings.

The truth seems to be that FGW bid over the odds for the franchise. They don't appear to be able to hit their own profit targets and at the same time provide a quality rail service. But the Government needs to take a share of responsibility. They set out the specification of rail services that bidders would have to provide, and this was clearly inadequate. And they set up the rules which give rolling stock companies a monopoly in supplying train carriages so that they can charge the earth - which makes it all the harder for operators like FGW to have extra capacity in case of rolling stock failure.

All in all it is a sorry tale. Most depressing of all was that at the end of the debate, the minister said he could see no point sitting round a table with MPs of all parties, FGW and Network Rail - basically because he accepted no responsibility for the problem. The sound of hands being washed of the whole problem was clear to all to hear.

11 comments:

Mary Reid said...

Steve - dod you really post this at 5.24am?

Andy said...

Steve, I agree that this is unacceptable, particularly the government declining to take responsibility. However, how does this relate to the Lib Dem belief in authority being delegated down to a local level? If this is implemented central government will not be responsible for similar decisions over a much wider range of issues. For example, would the Health Secretary be responsible for under-performing hospitals if the decisions leading to them being under-performing were made at a local level?

Steve Webb MP said...

I certainly think responsibility should be as close to people as possible; sometimes this will be very local (eg parish/town level), sometimes district or region, and sometimes - for more strategic things like national rail networks - there needs to be an overall national oversight. The key point is that at the moment it is Central Government that specifies the franchise, and central govt. that oversees it, so I think I've a right to moan to them when it fails!

PS to Mary Reid - nope - my system clock was wrong, but all is now fixed, so if I do post at 0524 you'll know it's genuine!

Andy said...

I think the fact

Andy said...

Sorry about that, not sure what happened then

The fact that government oversees rather than runs leads to lots of interesting questions about responsibility and accountability. It brings to mind the Yes Prime Minister sketch over who is responsible for administration and who for policy. I'd be interested to hear ideas on how this tension between government overseeing and agencies implementing can be managed better?

Dan Smith said...

Isn't it time the Tories or the Libdems started holding the government to account on this matter. Everyone agrees that we must use more public transport if we are to lead greener lifestyles, and yet the government has just placed a contract with a company who is clearly not committed in any way to expanding the usage of the rail service, and it doesn't seem it was asked to do so. If the key prerequisite for any train operating company was to commit to at least double the number of passengers in the next 5 years (remember that idea of Mr Prescott's?) passengers would not be suffering the problems they are now. The contract should have been incentivised so that First Great Western would get no profit unless they grew passenger numbers year on year. Cynical cutting of services and trains would then be pointless for them if they lost more profit by losing passengers than they saved by not renting enough rolling stock. Of course the government would have got less money in fees from the company, but then we should surely be putting money into greener transport, not taking more out?

g4mby said...

I think that Yate passengers ought to mount a similar campaign to those in the Bath area as the 1644 Temple Meads to Yate train on 24th January was again packed to a dangerous level. It was operated by a 'Pacer' unit (around 90 seats) rather than the normal 'Sprinter' units (120-150 seats). It was also probably busier than normal that day. If there had been an accident or even if the driver had had to make an emergency stop at least a dozen passengers could have been thrown on top of the three or four bicycles at my end of the train. I couldn't count the number of people standing but must have been approaching the number lucky enough to have found a seat. The situation wasn't too bad on departure from Temple Meads but no doubt the staff there were unaware of the large number of people wanting to board at both Filton Abbey Wood and Bristol Parkway. I also noted that overcrowding was worse than that on any of the Bath trains on which cameras were present last week.

I can't believe that FGW or the DfT think that this is a civilized and safe way to travel! I don't think that FGW care or least not until they get some very bad publicity and then issue a statement with misleading facts. They state that they are receiving stock from a sister company to help the situation. Much of it has been here since last summer and is out of service. Two more units arrived last week and one failed on its first day. But FGW have kept quiet about the 12 units that are either in store are now with Arriva in South Wales. Also no mention of the unit that they have sent to Scotrail to quicken the repainting process north of the border.

I have sent a report to various people but not one person has yet replied although surprisingly an acknowledgement was received from FGW's MD, Alison Forster. (Did you get your copy Steve?). I feel I am a lone voice as few of the other passengers that I travel with seem to want to take any action. That's their choice of course but when apathy rules the offenders just carry on as they wish. FGW will do just that knowing that when we get fed up with the local trains we can always catch the bus which of course is operated by...

Bill H said...

Recently i needed to visit Leeds on Business. I decided to use the train instead of drive. Unfortunately the only seats available were £360 each. I flew for £60 return. How green can i be if i the train cant compete on price?

mark.studden said...

I have been lucky enough to find a 3 month work contract in London (I'm self employed in the IT industry), but I've discovered that the only feasible way of commuting from Chippenham - my nearest station - is by first class on FGW. Over the next three months, I will work on approx. 60 days. 20 of those days will be spent earning enough money to pay for my rail ticket. 20 days will be spent earning tax for HMGov. Which means I have to charge my client enough dosh on a daily basis to allow me to make enough in 20 days to pay the mortgage, fill the fridge, run the car etc etc for 3 months...
Is it just me, or are we living in incomparably BONKERS times?

Andy said...

The problems with FGW are not limited to any geographic area, rather they are an endemic feature of a company that puts profit before customers and service. We suffer from all the mentioned issues on my line as well. See my blog on the subject http://www.lastgreatwestern.co.uk

Never On Time said...

If you are a railway passenger with a complaint, please visit http://www.railvoice.co.uk You can then post complete details of your complaint and it will be forwarded to the appropriate railway company.