20 March 2010

To buy or not to buy

"You will have new buses and coaches when we say; we'll design them on your behalf, tell you how much they will cost; order you to operate them on the routes we want and to the frequencies we tell you. Oh, and you can only recoup the cost of these vehicles by increasing fares by a maximum of 1% above the Retail Price Index, calculated six months prior to the fares being allowed to increase."

This is effectively what the railway industry has to deal with. The Department for Transport, (DfT) in partnership with the Office of Rail Regulation, has the sole responsibility for the procurement of new rolling stock, which covers a multitude of vehicles - carriages, diesel multiple units, intercity express locos etc, etc. The DfT effectively also has the final say on how existing resources are managed and distributed. What would the likes of the 'big five' say if the bus industry was run in this manner?

Concentrating on a Train Operating Company's (TOCs) ability to purchase new trains to meet a specific demand it has highlighted, it becomes immediately noticeable that the DfT is likely to turn down its request for a handful of reasons. Often, TOC franchises are too short - and another default through poor accountancy is the last thing the government wants; the new trains can be far too specific to one route that makes moving them around in the years to come very awkward; and there's a small amount of 'government knows best'.

First Great Western (FGW), for example, had, long before the Intercity Express Programme had been mooted, identified a plan to renew its large fleet of ageing High Speed Trains (HSTs - 'Intercity 125s'), but the then Strategic Rail Authority ensured this rare attempt at entrepreneurial flair soon met with the buffers, overriding FGW by announcing plans for the refurbishment of the Mk3 carriages and the new, more efficient MTU engines (replacing the very loud Valenta ones).

The DfT knows best when it attempts to design the interiors of new rolling stock, cramming in as many seats as possible, since this is what Passenger Focus claims passengers want. But the resultant scenario is incredibly poor legroom or inadequate luggage provision, which untimately makes the journey more uncomfortable for everyone.

One argument is that TOCs should now be able to specify the rolling stock needed - new if necessary - for its operation. This is something East Midlands Trains boss Tim Shoveller has been crying out for. While he doesn't request brand-spanking new units, his Liverpool-Norwich route suffers recorded 100% overcrowding at times and just a handful more Class 158s is all that is needed to make life that little more barable for his passengers, but following a half a dozen requests last year, nothing.

Those precious few longer franchises seem to be those that can buck the trend - look at Virgin Trains, whose West Coast franchise completely replaced every train in its fleet with new Pendolinos. The end of loco-hauled CrossCountry services also took place under their watch, with Voyagers and (not so) Super Voyagers - that were going to tilt - entering service. Arriva benefit from the latter now.

With the Intercity Express Programme (IEP )stalled for the time being, it has been suggested that perhaps the scheme's complete withdrawal is the best course of action. The new hybrid trains would have the potential of being too prescriptive for the routes on which they were to be allocated - Great Western and East Coast main lines. With the planned electrification of the GWML over the coming years, the only main section of route these new hybrid IEP trains would be required to operate on would be north of Edinburgh, and how few people of the entire East Coast Main Line flow travel to Dundee or Inverness on the single-number of journeys each day?

RAIL's editor Nigel Harris suggests that allowing TOCs to purchase their own trains is a road down which "madness lies", by delaying the standardisation the industry needs to bring down costs and, as we've already mentioned, would make some trains useless for other routes. Perhaps in these recessed times, with budgets being squeezed or withdrawn altogether, the £13.9 billion price tag attached to the IEP could be reduced to just £3 billion with yet another mid-life refurbishment of the existing HST stock. The Mallard upgrade commenced by erstwhile GNER that saw all its Mk3 (HST) and Mk4 (Class 91) coaches overhauled, was done exceptionally well - the seating, even in Standard Class, is plush and substantial. Compare it to that inside one of First Transpennine Express' minimalist Class 185 'Desiros', where even seat numbering appears to be a secret, give me an HST any day. Or Class 91.

Perhaps the fundamental flaw in the DfT being able to control so much about the railway industry is that it has absolutely no operational interaction with the TOCs' passengers whatsoever. This frustrates train operators as they can't surely know what's best for their passengers any less than the non-passenger facing DfT, yet have trains forced on them they do not want nor need; have insufficient rolling stock to meet demand; and are even told at what times their booking offices should open.

Depending on your political slant, you may believe this is actually a very good way to run the nation's railway. The bus industry showed during its infancy how a privatised and deregulated operation could spark wars that ultimately no one won (certainly not the passengers) and that transport giants know exactly what they're entering into when they respond to invitations to tender. The LEYTR member who contacted us on this subject recently, hence sparking today's entry, said: "I think TOCs are like British Farmers - they moan and groan all the time, but you never see a poor one!"

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