Thursday, 23 August 2007

Reader Mail Vol III (The Wide World of Tickets)

Firstly, I would like to welcome the newest member of staff at In defence of First Great Western. My flatmate, who has now been press-ganged into bringing me toasted sandwiches while I write these. Let's have 0.5 secs silent contemplation of the hard work that he does.

This edition of reader mail is devoted to Tim and his comments on tickets in response to my last post. They can be found here. (Scroll way down). Lets go to the questions.

1. Off peak season tickets. Interesting question. It is true that regular season tickets are relatively cheap and a lot better option if you travel regularly. The fact that they are valid at any time also sweetens the deal (if you fancy travelling the route to work on yourday off) and that is one reason why they are not offered. The other reason is that there is little demand for them. There are not many customers who ravel regularly enough to make a season ticket worthwhile but make all their journeys off-peak. Season tickets are aimed at the commuter market and there aren't that many with a nice enough work schedule that they can avoid rush hour entirely.

2. Off peak returns. The official explanation for this ones that the return portion of the ticket s heavily discounted in order to encourage people to make both legs of their journey with us. Personally, I do not see the logic as the price difference is usually 10p and it costs more than that to take a passenger on a journey. I suppose it can help to develop loyalty and stop people straying to coaches but that only really works if the journey goes well. I think it is more likely that people would not be willing to pay twice the price of an off-peak single for a return ticket and reducing the single price so that a double price return would be reasonably priced is not cost effective.

3. Off-peak singles. That is a good point and was one of the thoughts behind making the new range of advcance pircahse fares single only. This allowed people to mix and match their tickets and also, if they could only get a coach on one leg, it discouraged them from getting the coach on both legs because all the single tickets were prohibatively priced.

There is a problem as you point out in that these advance purchase fares are not offered on all journeys and with the rail-link coach, only returns are offered (on the theory that if you go to an airport, sooner or later, you'll be coming back). I agree that there are a multitude of situations where an off peak single that was half the price of the return would be useful but again, it somes down to money.

With peak time returns, the single is, of course, half the price of the return, because the amount of money involved is larger. It would not make sense to have a standard open return 10p more than a single. Nor would people stand for having a single 10p less than the current return price. In addition to that, we like to encourage people out of the peak times, so making the single half the return encourages them to only go peak one way if that's all they need.

Good points there and I hope the answers helped. I will see if I can bring the points on off-peak singles to the attention of those who make such decisions and we may be able to get somehting done for the future.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

It's All Gone Quiet At The Front

Apologies for my absence blog fans. I regret that I have been out of the country (well, in Bristol, but that might as well be another planet to me) with little time to do anything other than explain exactly what libel means and chip in a bit with the promise of this post.

Since my last post, you've been letting me know about how horrible things were last Saturday night and I do sympathise. Ollie has helped me out in my absence with a bit of info and he is right again but the core of the problem seems to be lack of and incorrect info.

This is not a new story. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is FGW's biggest failing among things that they have total control over. Well that's not really fair. They have total control over how they disseminate the information but not always total control over what information is available.

I'll give you an example of this. Remember back on 2 July when the lightnig hit the signals and everybody was stranded. There were a whole lot of complaints that customers were not being kept up to date and staff could not tell them what was best to do. Problem is, the staff weren't being kept up to date and they didn't know the best thing to do. As you all know, Network Rail fix the signals and they provide FGW with info on how it's going and timescales and all that jazz. Or, at least, they are supposed to. They very often don't.

Staff don't know what is happening. They can't tell customers when the problem is likely to be fixed. They don't want to tell customers to go to Waterloo and get a SW train to Reading if the problem is going to be fixed in 20 minutes so they say nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing and get labeled (unfairly I feel) as unhelpful and uncommunicative. Your experience Tim, is an example of when staff have guessed and been wrong and subsequently looked bad.

Yes FGW should and do push Network Rail for updates but if they won't tell, we can't make 'em. I think maybe we should consider station announcements to say 'Sorry you're delayed. We'd like to tell you what's going on but Network Rail won't tell us. Sorry.'

Some of the time, you can substitute Network Rail for another TOC or an external organisation, like the Coroner in the case of fatality or the Fire Department in the case of, well, a fire. So next time, you're stuck at a station and the train is delayed, and you don't know what's happening, think about why you might not know.

Of course, that is not to say that FGW is totally faultless. When customers are not even told what is wrong, that is inexcusable because that is easy to find out. Control know what has happened and one quick phone call from a station and Control will tell them, it comes up on the tracking system. Sometimes, staff do know what is happening and don't tell people.

Sometimes, this is laziness on the part of the staff. Sometimes, it is fear. I know that I would not really want to face the whole of Paddington station, full of commuters and have to tell them that they aren't going anywhere for 3 hours. It's easy to say to the staff that customers will be less angry knowing than not knowing but it seems like a different story when you're the poor sod who has to do the telling. (I've done both parts of it, so I can sympathise). Ditto for Train Managers.

Sometimes TMs will deliberately keep passengers in the dark or lie to them. Not very ethical, I know, but long experience has shown us that if a TM announces a fatality or a fire or something like that, it sprks panic in some and a morbid curiosity in others. Either way, not something you want to have to deal with.

This applies to 'on the spot' information, but, of course, there are many other types. Like advance information on cancellations and changes to the timetable, as Tim and jp mentioned. There is no excuse for not providing this information. It's available, all stations get it, hard copies and pager messages.

I personally think that it should all be displayed on large posters so that there is absolutely no doubt about what is going on. I also think that we should go back to the paper copies of amended timetables that were in the station info racks. They were great and very useful.

I appreciate the fact that knowing what is going on and an approximate timescale can mitigate the frustration of a delay just a little and I think that FGW staff do appreciate it too and they get just as frustrated when they don't know and can't help, not least because they have a station full of people yeling at them.

To answer Tim, the staff on the Customer Service booth are not usually a different grade than the staff under the departure boards unless someone is filling in, but the staff at the booth tend to get a more varied line of questioning and the departure board staff get a little jaded, I think, at being asked the same thing all day.

That's my take on information. There's more but most of it is tangents and a bit rambling. So, to keep a bit more focused, I'll open this up to questions from the floor.

Friday, 10 August 2007

TFI Friday

So tired. Horrible day today. Normally I do like to go through all the new comments and answer them but right now I'm just not in the mood.

As I'm sure many of you know, there was a signal failure at West Drayton today. Not a particularly interesting one again. Of more interest was the signal problem in South Wales around Bridgend. It didn't interest me at first, but on a whim I decided to go into the TRUST system and have a squint at some of the trains that were being delayed as the length of the delays to trains coming out of Wales was becoming a concern.

My interest was peaked when I saw the following: XR CABLE CUT next to the delays. XR is a delay attribution code and stands for 'External Reason'. Oh yes, it was vandalism. Someone had taken the time and trouble to come and fuck up the signals (pardon the venacular) for jollies.

That so rags me off. Can't people find anything better to do???

I will take this time to answer Lee regarding turbos. There may be some pacers heading our way but nothing is confirmed as of yet. With regards to the turbos, we get to keep all the 165s and 166s from the Reading fleet but we are losing approximately 9 complete 158 sets from the ex-Wessex fleet. Supposedly, we will be getting somehting to replace them (maybe from those 1300 carriages the DfT has ordered) but again, nothing is confirmed. Not much help I know but it's all abit up in the air at the moment.

That's all for now. Back soon.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Tickets and Fares

My last post on fares got quite a buzz going and JP asked the question about why combination tickets can often be cheaper than a straight-through fare and why staff do not make this known to customers. So I will try and answer these questions here today.

Firstly, we need to set a background. The UK rail network fare structure, at its core, is infinitely complex. It's even more complex than the issue of actually running the trains. I got my start in the railway industry working for a certain organisation now residing somewhere in Bangalore. As we dealt with the entire country rather than just FGW, I got to know a lot about the UK fares structure. At one point during my tenure, it was estimated that, when you took into account AP fares, promotional tickets and each TOCs particular quirks, there were somewhere in the region of 10,000 distinct ticket types. I don't know how true this is and I'm not sure I want to, but it gives you an idea of how a big a scale we're dealing with. The idea is to not pass on too much of this complexity to the customer, but behind the scenes, it's a different story.

What we also have to take into account is that rail fares are not just priced on distance. If they were, things would be much easier. Routes are also priced on usage. A ticket from point A to Paddington will cost you more than a ticket from point A to point B in the opposite direction, even though you are travelling the same distance. This is especially true of peak fares.

(Partly, this is due to the function of fares as a capacity control. You offer cheap tickets off-peak to encourage those who can travel off-peak to do so. But as an extra guarentee, on routes where you have a lot of commuters and really need the peak time space, you make peak time fares such that it really is worth travelling off-peak if you can possibly help it.)

Anyway, it is this usage pricing which creates the fares anomolies. To use JP's example: Bath to Paddington is a well travelled route, hence fares are expensive. Bath to Didcot is a less well travelled route. Even though the train ultimately may end up in Paddington, those of you travelling to Didcot will be off the train before Reading. Didcot to London is a well travelled route also, but a ticket from Didcot to Paddington takes advantage of the distance factor. It's closer so it's cheaper. If you are willing to do the research, you can get good deals with combo tickets, finding the best mid point so that you can take advantage of usage and distance pricing.

Staff do not tell you about combo tickets partly because they don't have to. They have to sell you a ticket and if you ask for a ticket from Bath to Paddington, you'll get the straight-through fare. The other reason is that it takes time to work out these combo tickets. I have seen a staff member report someone standing at a booking office for 30 minutes asking another staff member for every possible combination of tickets so that he could pick the cheapest. An extreme situation no doubt but imagine if this was peak time and you were in the queue behind him. If you ask staff about combo tickets, they will help you but there is a time and a place.

The fares structure in terms of the number of tickets available to purchase can be confusing, espcially when you get to AP ticketing. Back in the good old days there were two main AP tickets, Apex and Super Advance. Individual TOCs had their own systems like Virgin's Value Advance range but FGW stuck to the big two.

Until recently.

Recently came the advent of the Leisure Advance and Business Advance tickets. These were intended to provide a ticketing style similar to airlines. Single journeys only, on a first-come-first-served basis. This was intended to reward customers for early booking (we like early booking, it helps us with usage figures) as well as allowing them to mix and match tickets for their specific journey (peak one way and off-peak the other rather than a peak return ticket even though only one leg was peak, first and standard etc).

Leisure Advance were the off-peak tickets and Business Advance were peak. Not many Business Advance tickets were offered on peak trains as we try and encourage off-peak travel where possible with AP tickets. Each had three bands, A, B and C. C is the cheapest, A the most expensive. As the fare became more expensive, more of them were offered. The impetus being, if you want a really cheap fare you better book damn early. Of course, if you did book damn early, you better not change your mind, because none of the Leisure Advance tickets are refundable (although Business Advance are, and contrary to what anyone may tell you, this is not against the Sale of Goods Act nor does it breach your statutory rights, or any other nonsense).

This was a good system really, and not that complicated once you read around it a bit. However, from May this year, things went a little crazy and each ticket type was increased to 5 bands. Now it's complicated. Unbelievably cheap if you get the bottom band ticket, but complicated.

Sometimes it just makes you want to give up and buy a Saver.

Of course, the restrictions are simple: they're valid on one train, don't miss it. Not so when it comes to walk on ticket restrictions as I believe JP mentioned. There is a lovely little book called the National Fares Manual or NFM. I don't know how many of you have seen this book, or know about it, but here is a picture of one with my hand for scale, taken at my old office at 2130 when I was working (very) late and bored.

This manual contains a list of every fare within the region as well as every restriction for every ticket. As you can see, this one just covers the West region. There are 7 of these to cover the country. It's produced by ATOC and approximately 1/3 of that book is restrictions that determine what ticket type you can by and when, for every journey across the FGW network. It's all available on computer now and it makes me sad in a way as so few people I see nowadays know how to use one properly.

Anyway, enough of nostalgia. As you can see, with this many restrictions, it's no wonder that customers find the fare system complicated and even the staff get confused. It really does take a long time to get to grips with. This is why, JP, you find that your fares vary so dramatically, there are an awful lot of different restrictions.

FGW are in fact, only partly to blame for this as it is ATOC who set the majority of the restrictions. They are independant of TOCS so can apparently be relied upon to be fair to everybody. It is, however, FGW who set the price for the diffent bands so you can still blame them for fares being too high. Since fares seem to be a hot topic at present, I will next present my piece on what goes into deciding your fare or, to put it another way, what exactly are you paying for.

Apologies that this was a bit long and rambling. I may not have been entirely clear in places. If anybody wants to know anything further, as always, I'm open to questions.


Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Track Problems

As I am sure many of you know, there was a massive signal failure near Didcot today. There was no interesting explanation for this one. Is it just me, or does it feel better somehow ehen the reason for a delay is interesting? Maybe I've just worked here for too long and I'm bored of mundane delays.

Anywho, this one was certainly mundane. Something just wore out. As with all signal faults, when somehting wasn;t right, the signla automatically defaulted to caution and everything was brought to a standstill.

To their credit, Network Rail go their Mobile Operations Manager and engineers on the scene fairly sharpish and they were able to fix the problem fairly quickly. Not before, however, we had 3 trains over 2 hours late and a load more over 60 minutes late through knock-on delays. As I looked at the TV above my desk, it was not pleasant to see that much red on a 42" screen.

I'm not sure how much infomation was provided on the scene. We were relying on Network Rail for updates and we certainly didn't get them where I was. My apologies for those of you who were not kept in the know but, if it's any consolation, neither were we. We only knew the status when we were told, (by one of our own staff who was at Didcot station no less) that the signal was green again. The lack of info is the factor that narks me off most, as it is something that we get the blame for when we are not in control of it. Rant on this coming soo, I feel.

I was hoping that the explanation for the signal failure would be a little more interesting but it comes down to the age of the infrastucture yet again, something that Network Rail needs to address urgently and something that the DfT plans to make you guys pay to address. As much as everybody remembers the 'good old days' under British Rail. They are largely to blame for the current state of the track as they never did any maintenance (part of the reason why fares were cheap). Railtrack only did 'cure' maintenance, fixing stuff when it broke and now, Network Rail are trying to do 'prevention' maintenance but because no-one before them did, they are stuck most of the time doing 'cure'. It's an uphill struggle to fix problems as they occur as well as renew track, especially down in this part of the country where we have some of the oldest and most fragile track. More on this problem later.

Sleep well folks. Tomorrow should be a better day.

Reader Mail Vol II

Well, my post about ticketless travel seems to have stirred up a hornets nest. In view of that, I will devote the majority of this post to respoding to points raised in comments.

Firstly, however, Lee, the rest of your questions. The latest Severn Beach usage figures have not yet been obtained, nor has the Severn Beach Line Development Plan been updated. This is work in progress.

There is no immediate prospect of a Clifton Down turnback service due to lack of funding from Bristol City Council as they are focusing on Avonmouth. The problem from our end lies in the fact that the services they have elected to focus on will be at a lesser frequency than if we could run some services only as far as Clifton. Therefore, at present, the proposal for a Clifton Down turnback signal has been dropped and can only proceed if Bristol City Council wish to fund it.

Finally, the new fare structure was discussed with the Severn Beach Line Working Group at two seperate LWG mettings several months apart and both times received universal support.

I hope that this is of use.

Now, responses to the Fare's Fair issue. Tim made several points and so I will number them as he did. (Please see the comments to Fare's Fair if you're interested in the questions).

1) Agreed, and I'm not entirely sure why it is done this way apart from ATOC regulations and I have no idea why they chose to set it up like this.

2) The barriers retain the tickets to prevent fraudulent re-use if, for example, the tickets were not checked on the train and therefore not stamped. Talk to the staff and if you tell them you need to keep the tickets, they'll let you through the manual barrier. Your suggestion is interesting but not cost effective.

3) The reason this is doone is because ticketsless travel on a long distnace HST costs more money than on a short run commuter service, as long distnace tickets are more expensive, even taking into account the larger number of passengers (generally) on a commuter train. When the oyster scheme comes in in 2009, the whole thing will be gated.

4) I'm not sure when and if we have ever claimed that, but if so, it's a dumb thing to say. The barriers are left open because there may be no staff around to help people who get stuck. o say that they prevent antsocial behaviour is silly.

5) It is annoying that you now have to get a ticket in advance and I appreciate that it adds time to your journey. It may well discourage people. It has become necessary though and I am sure that if I can guess the answer if I asked you if you were prefer and extra 10% on your journey time or an extra 10% on your fare.

6) Good point. I would add that FGW cary a lot more people on an intercity train than Heathrow Express do on theirs. However, I feel that the barriers add that extra bit of security for the times when the Train Manager is not able to get round the whole train. I also think that FGW is focusing on the wrong area. On a short trip, with only 2 or 3 minutes between each station, the TM is spending most of his time preparing to deboarding at the next station. That is when barriers become most needed and most effective. However, as I mentioned, FGW are concerned with the more expensie journeys and want to make sure that nobody trravels without a ticket.

7) I've been quite involved at various times with injuries incurred on trains and at stations and truthfully, I can say that I never come across an injury caused by rushes at barriers. I do agree, however, that the short notice given when announcing departure platforms is a problem, especially at Paddington, where platform changes are frequent and short notice often unavoidable. There is no easy solution to this one as it is a product of the rail network as a whole but there are plans in the works to increase the notice provided to passengers.

Finally, we get to the anonymous poster, who felt that my statement: "It does seem officious at times and we would not need to do it so much if we could guarentee that a TM would be able to check tickets but we can't at the present time," was an admission that we couldn't control our staff.

I disagree, as you might expect. I'm not going to go into the ins and outs here of all the things that the TM has to do on a train, maybe later, but it is not as simple as 'tickets aren't checked because the Train Manager is lazy.' Far too black and white. Sometimes it's true and sometimes the TM is hiding because he does not want to face the collective righteous indignation of a delayed commter train, but equally, sometimes, he's just busy. There might be a problem he is called to sort out, and incident on the line, a problem passenger and many other things. I doubt I can convince you with this short commentary so youmay have to trust me for a while, but you are somewhat wide of the mark.

That's all for now. Back later to pre-answer your complaints about the signal failure.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Fare's Fair

I love that expression. It's pleasantly cheesy. To return to our regularly shceduled programme with the commentary that I promised on Friday: Ticketless Travel. I am sure that you enlightened souls who read this blog buy your tickets. I am sure that the vast majority of you are season ticket holders who have given large sums of your money to First Great Western in advance. However, there are chancers out there, what FGW refers to officially as 'the selfish minority' who do not buy tickets.

This has led, over recent years to barriers springing up all over the network and an increase in the number of Revenue Protection Inspectors. It is currently a fact that First Great Western stops several thousand people a week at Paddington alone, who have either no, or the wrong ticket. It is also a fact that a study not too long ago found that as many as 1 in 5 people did not have a ticket to travel. For a company that carries as many people as First Great Western, those are alarming statistics.

Barriers have become a necessity to protect revenue. Much as many may malign them, consider the alternative. That being that 20% of people get away without buying a ticket. First Great Western incurs the extra costs associated with carrying these people for no return. First Great Western decides that they need to make up the lost revenue. What happens? You guessed it: a fares increase. Judging by people's comments on ticket prices, nobody wants that.

Not all of the First Great Western network is gated of course. Many routes do not have the automated revenue protection that a barrier provides. Hence the Inspectors or RPIs. Nobody likes these guys. Nobody likes having their tickets checked 2 or 3 times each journey and almost everyone seems to have a problem with their attitude.

To be fare, I know several RPIs. At least one I can say I'm good friends with. Some of them are the nicest guys you could wish to meet. Equally, some need a good kick in the ass and tuition on how to walk without their knuckles dragging. Some do have a bad attitude. In all fairness, they do a crappy job and take more stick than just about anyone and it tends to sour their moods and their outlook on humanity. Some enjoy their job a little too much.

The most common phrase I hear when customers expound on these gentlemen after being caught without a ticket is 'made me feel like a criminal.' Let's not beat around the bush: you are. Not having a ticket is an offence uner the railway bye-laws and can give rise to criminal prosecution. I'm also sure that at least 50% of the people in these situations did not sit there meekly and be abused by the RPIs like they would have us believe.

At the end of the day, they're doing a job and the vast majority will not go off on a customer for no reason. Try being nice and see where it gets you.

Now, on to the issue of a lack of tickets itself. If you board at a station with a ticket office and without a ticket, I'm afraid there is no excuse. 'There was a queue' is not an excuse, although by far the most common. Get to the station earlier, buy your ticket in advance. I have almost as little sympathy for those with the wrong ticket. Yes, the ticketing system can be complicated, but if you're unsure, phone NRES and ask, phone customer services and ask, spend 5 minutes on and find out. At the end of the day, you can't expect to have your hand held by the train company every step of the way and it's time to take some individual responsbility.


Reader Mail Vol I

OK. I have already been asked a couple of questions in my blog. Thanks for your interest guys.

Firstly, to answer Graham, who commented in my post on the DfT about the issue of trains from Westbury to Swindon on Sundays only proceeding in a northbound direction. The base Service Level Commitment set by the DfT requires First Great Western to run 2 services in a northbound direction only. This was based on analysis of passenger journeys and customer flows at the time. The DfT was not willing to commit to the investment that an additional southbound service would require.

However, good news is that following our own analysis of passenger bahaviour, we will be operating a southbound service from December 2007. The added bonus to us of doing this is that we are able to run an additional passenger service on a unit that would otherwise run empty on its way to its next journey.

Now to Lee's questions. The questions on Severn Beach, being quite complicated, will require some more time to gather answers for and I apologise for that. However, I can answer some of your other points.

Firstly, regarding Melksham trains. I can't give you an exact timetable of the December 2007 Melksham trains at this stage, but I am told that the service will be roughly the same, unless any last minute amendments are made.

Various proposals were made to extend the Melksham service and restore the off peak trains. The most likey seemed to be an hourly off peak service. However, all the alternatives would have required external financial support. As we could not procure this, we are forced to continue running services in line with the Service Level Commitment. In addition to this, any enhanced service would rely on us getting extra rolling stock, which is not the easiest thing to do at the moment.

Regarding bidding for the December trains paths. We were required to submit our bids by 18 January 2007. We can bid to add or amend services after this date but we would receive a lesser priority that other operator's services.

On the subject of rolling stock. First Great Western do not own any stock outright. The parent company First Group bought power cars and trailers from Porterbrook some time ago and FGW lease them from First. If FGW lost the franchise, First Group would still own the stock with the option to lease it to a successor.

We have done no specific 2 for 1 deals and we would not be able to do so over any great length of time. Occasionally if a Rolling Stock Company has taken some stock back and wishes to keep it from collecting dust, we will do a short-term deal for a couple of months or so and we would run and service the stock for that period at a reduced cost. The fact that some of these deals may have been half price is purely incidental and non-specific. We would not be lucky enough to get those kind of terms in a long-term deal.

Hope this helps guys.

Friday, 3 August 2007

It's all gone wrong (Part 1 of FGW's failings)

I said yesterday that I would comment a bit today on ticketless travel but after work today, I'm starting my series on the failings of FGW early. I'd like to start off with subject which, right now, is somewhat close to my heart at the moment. That is the inability of some sections of First Great Western management to make a decision and stick to it.

As we all know, over the weekend of 20 July, Britain decided that it was time for global warming to make itself known and we had our own little monsoon that submerged most of the South West. After the water had receded and the clean ups began, First Great Western decided to have a little think about how they were going to compensate people who could not get their train hom and had to get taxis or accomodation or whatever.

The problem being that they took 10 days to decide this, while the Customer service office was being flooded (pun intended) with complaints. These complaints could not just be left until First Great Western made a decision about compensation as it would create a backlog that would be difficult to recover from. So complaints were answered in the stabdard form 'Act of God-no comp'. Then First Great Western decided that they were in fact going to pay compensation for tickets, taxis and accomodation.

(Incidentally, this is way beyond anything that they had to do in this situation and, whether you think its a cheap ploy to claw back some goodwill or now, they deserve far more credit than they are getting. Especially since the latest estimate is that compensation payments for 20th July alone are expected to run into 6 figures).

The inital plan was that season ticket holders, who were the majority affected would receive a lump payment dpendant on the length of their journey, plus and incidental expenses. Or at least that is the way it seemed. Daily ticket holders would receive full ticket comp plus expenses. Payment under these terms went on for about a week

Today, it seems, some bright spark (I know who but it's a secret) decided that this wasn't right at all and there had to be a maximum award decided that there had to be a maximum award for compensation of £100.00. So taxis and expenses were paid and then the difference up to £100.00 was a lump sum payment.

So now, it's bound to happen that you'll have commuters paid the first way chatting to commuters who were paid the second way and those who were paid the second way will feel gipped. A most effective way of removing any goodwill that has been built up and inviting further complaints.

This is the sort of slipshod thinking that cannot be excused and I cannot present FGW's point of view as even I don't see where they're coming from. Hopefully later, I can present my bit on ticketless travel and that will be more balanced.


Thursday, 2 August 2007

The DfT

I was going to stop at 2 posts for today but having been flitting around looking for new material, I did notice that there is a lot of debate on who is more responsible for the poorly received December 2006 timetable and the current state of the Greater Western franchise.

I'm here to present the truth, not to be an FGW apologist so I will not pretend that it's all the DfTs fault. Mechanical failures on trains, staff sickness, poor information, problems with catering, inadequate response to major problems. All within FGW's direct control and all their fault. I'll expand on this in the future.

However, the service level agreement for the franchise was set by the DfT. The vast majority of cuts in services can be laid at the feet of the DfT. While it was within the scope of FGW to build on the minimum set out in the agreement, all additional services had to be approved by the DfT. Taking into account that FGW will pay the DfT £1.1bn should the franchise run its course and you have a situation in which it is very difficult for additional services to be introduced. When you take into account that the franchise agreement also included millions of pounds worth of improvements at stations and on the trains themselves and the situation looks even bleaker.

The DfT has reminded FGW that they control who wins the franchises. They have 'expressed a wish' that no blame be attributed to them for anything to do with the state of the franchise, 'or else'. In fact, the long suffering Customer Service department has been told that they are not to mention the DfT in communication to customers under any circumstances, even if the DfT really is the source of the problem that the customer is complaining about. This has led to FGW taking more than its fair share of blame for things that are beyond its control

There is the view that if MPs like Thresa May and Boris Johnson know what is going on, why are they calling for FGW to be stripped of the franchise. Well, I think that this is a simple one to answer. FGW are the public face of the franchise and the ones that everybody blames when things go wrong. Even if said MPs know what is going on, by seeming to champion the commuters cause, they look like wonderful people. That means votes. That means re-election and that means not having to get a proper job.

It is understandable that FGW will take all the stick from customers. They are, as has been mentioned many times, the public face of the franchise. It's also true that First did not have to bid for the franchise, but considering the large chunk of profit that would have been lost if they had not done so, there was not much of a choice.

FGW is also the one paying the compensation when things go wrong, whether it is their fault or the fault of the DfT. No money is claimed from the DfT because First Great Western had to pay out for a situation not of their making. FGW absorbs the blame.

It is also true that there are other franchise operators who run their services much better than FGW. I would add the small argument that not many of them were hamstrung with such a ludicrous starting base as FGW was, but FGW is not faultless. Tomorrow, I will comment on FGW's failings as a company and how these can be addressed as well as provide a short piece on ticketless travel and those Revenue Protection Inspectors that customers find so annoying. Maybe that will lead to some more understanding as well.

It's just one little stop

OK. This may seem like a negative note to start off on and, like some aspects of this blog will, it'll get a bit technical, so bear with me. This post is about ignorance. It's not deliberate ignorance and it's not an ignorance that can be easily corrected. It takes a long time to get to grips with the rail network.

It started with a question that was posed to me, in a roundabout way, by a passenger of First Great Western. In a nutshell, they wanted more Heathrow Connect services, both into and out of Paddington, to stop at Acton Mainline, a tiny station right next to Paddington. Their rationale for this was 'All you have to do is make the train stop, because there's enough time built into the timetable for it.'

At this point I sigh, because if only it were that simple. Here's the technical bit.

The UK rail network, especially the lines between Reading and Paddington is very finely balanced. You alter one thing, and it affects others. This what some people just don't seem to be able to grasp.

The problem lies in that the turnaround time for trains at Paddington is a maximum of 9 minutes. Extra stops in either direction erode turnaround times and make the consequences of delays a lot more costly. With me so far? Good.

Further away from Paddington, there is a crossing pint where trains can switch lines called Heathrow Tunnel Junction. It's a piece of single-line track, only one train at a time goes through. The pattern is set so that 'down' trains (those leaving Paddington) cross the junction and then 'up' trains cross 2 minutes later. The times for each train at this junction are fixed.

A stop at Acton Mainline for the 'down' train would mean that it would have to leave Paddington earlier so that it would still make its slot at the junction. No problem so far, right? Except that it can't do that because there is a service to Oxford that leaves Paddington 3 minutes earlier that would occupy that slot. The depature time of that service to Oxford is fixed as well because it is dictated by the time that the stock for that train arrives from Oxford.

The point being that if the Heathrow Service is changed, then the Oxford service has to be changed, which means that the service before that has to be changed and any services that connect to and from it have to be changed so that they still connect, and so on.

It's not as simple as you might think. In fact, it's bloody complicated. That was a slimmed and simplified version of what's going on. One day, I may post the full version just for comparison. And that is just one stop in one small area.

Forgive me if I sound rude, but there are several lesons to be learned from this.

1) Just because you travel by train, does not mean you know how to run a rail network.

2) Just because a change would make your life more convenient, does not mean it's a good idea, or even possible.

3) If a train company tells you that something is not possible, instead of arguing the toss for 8 letters like that guy did, every once in a while, no matter what you think of us, accept that sometimes we do know what we're talking about.

Rant over.


It Begins

There are a lot of blogs and other sites out there at the moment bashing the UK rail network in general and, it seems, First Great Western in particular. Sometimes people have a point but sometimes they are way off the mark.

I think that it may now be time for an alternative viewpoint. I work for FGW. I don't hold a senior position by any means but the nature of my work means that I have frequent (daily) contact with some very senior members of management, including the Managing Directors office.

As a result of that, I am in a position to bring the unvarnished and unsanitised truth about many of the problems that passengers encounter every day and perhaps enable people to understand it a bit more from FGW's point of view.

I'll be posting on various topics that come up during the course of my day or that just take my fancy and I will also do my best to respond to any questions raised in any comments to my posts. Some of the things I say may offend you, you may not like them. I can get quite wound up by the ignorance I encounter at times, so there may even be a few naughty words. I'm open to healthy discussion, but I don't have the time or inclination for flame wars or mud slinging.

All I ask is this: Remember that just because you don't like it, doesn't mean it isn't true.