Most rail chiefs will tell you the most important people in a railway company are the staff. A company like Virgin Trains or First Capital Connect does not own the tracks on which it runs nor the trains it uses.
Even the stations are leased from Network Rail which also operates the infrastructure. However when it comes to deciding who shall run a railway franchise the staff – and the customers that use the service – are, it seems, not consulted.
Despite protestations by the system’s apologists when it comes to letting a franchise the DfT evaluates bids from rival commercial companies and appears to plump for the most lucrative. Understandably enough the DfT’s remit from government is clear: Get the best deal you can for the tax payer.
The system doesn’t always work well. East Coast has collapsed twice and First Great Western decided to surrender its option to run through a franchise extension – the recession had rendered revenue projections of yester year unrealisable.
Whilst the politicians and civil servants involved try and sort out the franchise controversy it must be noted that the staff on the West Coast Main Line continue to deliver a superb railway service on one of the most heavily trafficked routes in Europe. As Chris Green once remarked, ‘They face a challenge not of their own making.’
Green, erstwhile CEO of Virgin Trains, was speaking of railway privatisation itself. That they do so with such aplomb and professionalism is largely down to their dedication to the railway, a commitment which transcends the vagaries of the system.
Branson’s case on the west coast is that the winning bid is undeliverable Not so says First Group. The reaction of staff and passengers is markedly pro-Virgin. No one can be quite sure what staff actually think about carrying on working for Virgin. Many of the staff want to stay part of Virgin. This must be qualified by mentioning the undoubted attractions of Virgin staff benefits and the aversion of people generally to change.
If Virgin has a subversive new age feel to it then it should also be remembered that FirstGroup is a working class management buy out made good. The origins of First Group date back to the Thatcherite privatisation of the bus industry.
In Aberdeen Moir Lockhead – who started life as a fitter in his native County Durham – put together an MBO together with trade union support to head off the buccaneer capitalists rolling up the industry. Lockhead became chief executive of First and expanded the company across Britain and the United States and into rail. First is an established and respected employer. The steady stream of staff initiatives backed by First testify to this.
What is clear is that the present system of bid and counter bid ill serves the industry, the tax payer and the staff who aren’t even mentioned. It is destabilising and causes confusion among customers, passengers, investors and staff. Railway people invest their careers in the railway and deserve better than this.
The message from the rail industry is a simple one: Open the books and show us your figures. Never mind commercial confidentiality, railways are a contract between the people running them and the passengers using them. How this works out in terms of tax payer risk, fares and service provision is pertinent to all not just the DfT and the bidders. Secondly consult the staff.
Sir Humphrey might argue that they are only interested in keeping their jobs. What is so inconvenient about that particular truth? Ask passengers what they want after train punctuality and it is always this: They want to see and hear real people on trains and stations, not machines or recorded announcements – helpful though these are.
With the creation and strengthening of the Rail Delivery Group, the move of power in Network Rail down to the actual routes and the practice of alliancing – uniting wheel and rail once more – surely the time has come to pay greater attention to the people who actually do the work. Their voice should be heard.
Both Virgin and FirstGroup are excellent companies to work for and have done well for railways. The people they have the good fortune to employ must have a say in the future of the industry to which they remain committed long after the current franchise agreements expire.