Friday, 4 January 2008

Oh dear, oh dear

Well, it's all gone to pot since the new timetable hasn't it. Luckily (!), it's not actually down to the new timetable, which is working as it supposed to work by and large. I udnerstand that many are not happy with the service cuts, but were other things working as intended, the new timetable would be a success.

However, things are not working as intended. Having read the reports, (good news on that front: after a year of hard work, the reports are now working properly. Now, if only we can actually act on them, things will be OK), it seems that the major problems recently have been lack of train crew and track problems.

The delays caused by lack of train crew are becoming a joke now, except that it's not funny. FGW are in full damage control mode and training everyone to do everything in the hope that this will create more situations where spare crew are available who can actually do the job that needs doing. In my opinion, however, things will not improve on this front until working for FGW becomes a more attractive proposition. Anyone who likes the colour blue should begin holding their breath at this point. True, the money os rather good for the job, but I've heard that peopel are also motivated by job satisfaction and there's precious little of that around at the moment. Not me, by the way, I'm actually having fun, but I get the choice about when I talk to the passengers.

Another problem would be crowding. This is not so much responsible for delays as it is responsible for frustration and annoyance. anyone interested in the ins and outs of crowding, including legalities and so on, feel free to comment and I'll post. Or I may post just for the hell of it, who can tell.

By now, thanks to Klaus, most of you have probably seen the letter from Andrew Haines. It also went out on trains by the way, so there was no deliberate attempt to hide it. At least he is honest, I suppose but in this case, I don't believe that admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it. Investment would be good, the DfT appearing with those 1300 cariages they promised would also be good.

Before I move on to perhpas to hottest topic at the moment (thanks BBC), I would like to address a point made by Klaus about Virgin standing up to NR. Good for them, it needed to be said, and maybe FGW should speak up too. I think we may find, however, that this will cost Virgin in the end.

Now, to the hot topic. The fares rise. Oh, ok, the fares rise. Yeah, that didn't go down well. In all honesty, you had to see it coming, what with that lovely franchise payment to the DfT kicking in. However, I have to admit that even I was surprised when I saw all the figures. True, regulated fares are up by 4.8% (average), but unregulated fares up 6.1% (average). I did not expect that high a rise. Especially for those whose fares went up by 11%. Ouch. It is true that the money is needed for investment, (as well as to pay off the DfT) but I think that this is excessive and, Im sorry, but I can't give you an excuse. Some have been lucky enough to see a fares freeze, but in all honesty, that comes on lesser used routes and enables us to sting well used routes for more money. The freeze on some routes keeps the averages down and, since the DfT only works on averages, stops them shouting at us.

In short, I'm sorry. Kinda hollow coming from me, I know, but FGW are in a shitty position and no-one is happy.Bring back the SRA, they were crap, but at least they had a bit of sense when it came to realising that you have to pony up some cahs if you want to pu impossible demands on TOCs.

I'm sorry that this post has kinda glossed over many issues but this is my long weekend and I want to enjoy it. Seeing as I worked every day over Christmas and the New Year with the exception of Christmas Day (and only just at that), I think I deserve it.

I'll let people get some comments in, as I'm sure you will and then see what answers I can come up with.

Happy New Year all.


CJ Harrison said...

I agree about Virgin and NR. It desperately needed to be said and it needs to be repeated often.

It should be the job of ATOC as the representative of all the train operators to speak out on such matters. However, ATOC are pretty spineless. Indeed, when interviewed on the BBC their Director General, George Muir, actually apologised to passengers for the delays caused by the Rugby overrun. Frankly, that’s ridiculous. He should have sympathy, certainly, but neither he nor the TOCs he represents have anything to apologise for. ATOC need to have a very serious rethink about their approach to publicity and media relations.

Rugby may have given Network Rail the publicity bashing they need to sort out the constant engineering overruns; but without constant pressure being applied, I somehow doubt that any significant improvement will materialise.

On the subject of fares I actually think, despite the increases, that season tickets do continue to represent very good value for money. I appreciate that, especially if you buy an annual ticket, it is a large sum of money to find, but the savings over and above standard tickets are significant.

Say you travel from Reading to Paddington most days. The cost of an annual ticket without tube travel is £3,328. If you assume you make the journey 416 times a year*, that works out at exactly £8 per journey. For the distance of travel and the frequency of trains that isn’t a bad price. Indeed, it probably works out less than the additional cost of living in London.

The higher increases on some unregulated tickets is unwelcome, but as you say it was always on the cards. In its last year of operation Wessex received £62.931m in grants and subsidies. Over the course of this franchise, FGW will have to pay back over £1bn for the privilege of running the whole Greater Western operation. Even to the economically illiterate it is patently obvious that a cut in subsidy for the most unprofitable part of the operation combined with a hefty premium, would need to be met by some above inflation fare increases. There is no other way to make the franchise pay.

Another way of looking at it is that the franchise premium payment effectively equates to a 15% tax on the cost of tickets. Each pound of revenue FGW takes is distributed as follows:

Operational costs: 77 pence
Payment for the franchise: 15 pence
Capital investment: 3 pence
Operating profit: 5 pence

This is obviously estimated, but it does give a good sense of where the money goes. On a 5% operating margin, it is ludicrous for anyone to suggest that FGW is profiteering for its franchise. There are many other companies making far more: Marks & Spencer, 11%; British Airways, 8%; and, Vodafone 24%.

What is unfair and what angers most people is the fact that the fare increases come when service levels are poor. I think that’s very understandable, especially since people cannot easily transfer their custom elsewhere.

I have always maintained that while I think things will improve on Greater Western, this is a ‘non-ideal’ franchise. It is never going to be perfect because it just isn’t structured that way: there isn’t enough time to make required changes, there isn’t enough money to put in the investment required, there isn’t enough of an opportunity to generate a return on that investment and there is far too much segmentation between the various parties operating the system. Until those things are remedied we are not going to have a good railway system in the Great Western region, or anywhere else for that matter.

And, as I have said before: the only organisation that can make these changes is the government. We have had ten years of dither, delay and buffoonery from the current administration and before them we had several years of bungling on the issue of privatisation of the railways. What we need is proper thinking and planning from the top; until and unless someone has the courage to make the necessary changes things will not get much better.

First Great Western, do have a part to play, of course. Things like staff shortages, lack of communication and so forth should all be laid at their door and they need to be – and in some cases are being – improved. But even with those changes, even if FGW were faultless in their operations, we would still have a sub-standard railway.

Anyway, sorry for hijacking the comments section! That’s all I have to say!


* Twice a day for 250 days: which is 365 days minus 104 for weekends, minus 8 for public holidays, minus 25 for holiday allowance, minus 20 to account for other reasons for non travel like sickness, etc.

chris from nailsea said...

Welcome back, Insider! Suggest you get your tin hat on! :-)

Anonymous said...

Following your comment about overcrowding I would be very intersted to know the legal limits as I am sure I would have seen them be broken.

MarkF said...

I'd pretty much guarentee I have - in an HST down to paddington after the summer floods. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't First's fault, but that was one FULL train.

Anonymous said...

No legal limit on overcrowding. At the end of the day it is your choice to get on the train. I travel on the underground and they run jammed packed all day.

Lee Fletcher said...

A pleasure to see you back in full posting mode. I have a question (now there's a surprise) :

Your quote about FGW training everyone to do everything is interesting given the possible strike action over managers performing the duties of guards. What's your view on this?

By the way, I'm not sure about "Bring back the SRA." They bear a not insignificant part of the blame for the mess we are in!!

Anonymous said...

I probably am not going to be popular saying this, but despite dealing with the great British public , salt of the earth (ie. a large proportion of morons that think the world owes them a living and they have no responsibility for running their own lives), working for FGW is one of the best jobs I have ever had (and I am mid 40's, not some 18 y.o). The terms and conditions are very good, the wages (considering the qualifications and training required) are excellent, the whole concept of being paid from when I start work to when I finish is so unlike previous salaried jobs, and the company does seem to care about it's employees (individual managers aside).

I do not know what FGW's turnover of staff is, but I have only known three people in three years to leave the company to go to a job outside the railway industry.

The current staffing problems come down to a lack of recruitment on the part of FGW in the run-up to the franchise, and the first 18 months of the franchise while the (very poorly thought out) "management reshuffle" was ongoing. This was a MAJOR mistake, and one that is now coming back to bite the company on the bum, but hopefully by summer, the situation should have eased as new people come on stream.

The whole issue of a strike is a mistake, and I am not convinced that it is not politically motivated by the RMT, hoping that "one more push" will result in FGW losing the franchise, and ushering in the socialist utopia of a renationalised railway.

beng69 said...

Personally i feel there is no justification for these fair rises. Recent figures show that First Group are making record profits and call me old fashioned but when something rises in price i expect the level of service to rise with it.

I am very sorry but with the excuses i have been given by FGW i really can not trust them as a company that what they are saying is the truth, and yes the DfT could be doing alot more to help the situation as at the end of the day it voters suffering. But FGW has to shoulder most of the blame, it only seems to be them that are hard done by.

As for the planned strikes by staff and passengers i do welcome them as hopefully the FGW management and Government might start listening to people power and realise that something needs to be done as a whole.

Billyo said...

Welcome back Insider, I have only just noticed your return. I'd like to say that my fare has risen by over 20% in the last 13 months. I'm sure you'll agree, that's quite a lot, but actually I'd like to point out an innaccuracy in your post.

Overcrowding DOES cause delays. Every day the South Wales - South Coast trains are overcrowded. Often trains pull in to stations on time, yet take more than 5 mins to leave because people have to clamber over one-another to get to the doors. Add up this delay at each station and the train becomes late. Just one extra carriage on most of these services would advert most delays. Infact, I imagine that the stats would back this up. On the rare occasion that these trains are made up of 3 or 4 cars the delay seems minimal.

Anonymous said...

Just to comment on billyo's post, there is more than one door on a train. The number of times I've stood seething, waiting to dispatch a HST while 30 people try to get in the one door of coach E while the rest of the train is empty are countless. Putting extra coaches on is not the solution - I've done headcounts on HST's which have 125 people on board, 65 of whom were in coach E. Even when you tell passengers that there are other doors, most will not move.

Billyo said...

I agree that passengers can be a pain and don't help in quick turn arounds, crowding around the doors and not allowing passengers a path off the train etc, but this is all symptomatic of wanting to get on and get a seat because there are so few.

But I'm not talking about HSTs. As was obvious with regards to the reference to longer trains being 3 or 4 cars long. I'm referring to the 2-car sprinters, or worse, the pacers which only have 3 doors.

Though it's not simply a question of doors and how long it takes to get bodies through doors, it's a question of having so many people standing on the train that the people sitting cannot get past them to get to the door.