BRITAIN’S RAILWAYS: STILL IN THE SIDINGS? Institute of Directors Business CommentIntroduction and summaryThe Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions stated two years ago that “Thepassenger and the taxpayer are not getting a fair deal on the railways”1. Railways are important to IoDmembers for business travel and freight purposes. A survey on railways was conducted midway through2000. The findings were not good. Even before the recent problems most train operating companies’(TOCs’) services were not highly rated by directors. There were also serious concerns about trainovercrowding as a health and safety issue. Directors were keen to see the Government working with therail industry to improve performance. Little enthusiasm was shown for the notion that the Strategic RailAuthority (SRA, due to take up its powers in February 2001) would make much difference. A separatesurvey on costs of the recent disruption was conducted in the Autumn. This snapshot gave a stark set offigures on some of the costs to business of the continued poor (and now worsened) state of the railways.This is simply unacceptable in a modern economy in the 21st century.Directors’ views on the trainsA self-completion questionnaire entitled “Britain’s Railways: Are they on the Right Track?” was included inthe June 2000 issue of IoD Policy, sent to all UK-based IoD members in mid month. By theclosing date of 14 July there had been 553 returns.The main emphasis was the performance of the franchises operated by the then 25 TOCs. Although therunning of the railways is divided between the TOCs and Railtrack plc, as far as travellers are concerned,it is the train experience itself that normally leaves the most lasting impression, notwithstanding the morerecent track problems under the control of Railtrack. Also involved in the industry are the rolling stockcompanies (which own rolling stock and lease to the TOCs), 120 track maintenance organisations, andPassenger Transport Executives in seven metropolitan areas. Additionally, the Office of the Rail Regulatorregulates retailing of tickets, information services, competition and monopoly issues. Quite a plethorareally2. Views were sought on who should actually take responsibility for improving the railways. Questionswere also asked about railway performance as a whole and about one matter of health and safety.Only a minority of IoD members indicated that they never used the trains for business purposes. Of thosenon-users (21), the most frequently given reason was high prices. This was followed by overcrowding,absence of a suitable service or the fact that stations were not nearby. Poor frequency and bad timekeepingof services were also mentioned, and remarks were made about lack of cleanliness of trains. “HOW OFTEN DO YOU TRAVEL BY RAIL FOR BUSINESS PURPOSES (INCLUDING TRAVELLING TO OR FROM WORK)?”Frequency Proportion of respondentsEvery working day 11%Most working days 11%About once a week 32%About once a month 25%Less than once a month 15%Never 4%No reply 2%553 questionnaires received.
BRITAIN’S RAILWAYS: STILL IN THE SIDINGS?Of those who travelled by train on business, opinion tended to be somewhat unfavourable, with a total of 27%indicating that services served their needs well or very well, compared with 36% indicating poorly or very poorly. Justover a third thought that services were adequate:- “IF YOU TRAVEL BY TRAIN, HOW WELL DO YOU THINK THAT RAIL SERVICES MEET YOUR NEEDS FOR BUSINESS TRAVEL?”Very Well Well Adequately Poorly Very Poorly No Opinion No Reply 8% 19% 35% 25% 12% 0% 2%Base: 522 respondents who travelled by train. Total not 100% because of rounding.Four percent (25) of the survey participants indicated that their organisation sent goods by rail, although 1% were notsure and 3% did not reply to the particular question. Of those 25, 20% indicated that rail freight services served theirneeds well or very well, just over 40% thought that they were adequate and just under 40% thought that they were pooror very poor. Once again there were more dissatisfied than satisfied users.The diagram below gives the findings about individual TOCs. Please note, although the findings relate to IoDmembers who had actually used the particular services, any with fewer than 20 respondents are not shown. TRAIN OPERATING COMPANIES: DIRECTORS OPINIONS OF SERVICE QUALITY Institute of Directors members, June - July 2000 (Number of respondents - excluding those for which there were < 20 responses and "don’t knows" - in brackets) Great North Eastern Railway (153) ScotRail (51) Chiltern Railways (74) Midland Mainline (74) First Great Eastern (40) West Anglia Great Northern (56) Anglia Railways (49) First North Western (23) Thameslink (133) Northern Spirit (35) Thames Trains (67) First Great Western (123) Central Trains (49) Silverlink (58) Wales & West Trains (45) Virgin Trains (302) South West Trains (151) Connex (197) 0 20 40 60 80 10 0 % Very Good or Good Neither good nor bad Poor or Very PoorGreat North Eastern Railway (GNER) came out on top, with 82% giving its services a good or very good rating, 6%indicating neither good nor bad, and 12% giving a poor or very poor rating. At the other end of the line came theaggregate for the various Connex services. These came in at only 7% good or very good, 18% neither good nor bad, and75% poor or very poor. It was not unexpected when Connex subsequently lost its franchise in its South Central areaand was also fined more than £10 million by the Shadow SRA for failing to run efficient services3.With GNER at the head of the approval rating, others where over half thought services very good or good were (indecreasing order of approval): ScotRail, Chiltern Railways, Midland Mainline, First Great Eastern, and West AngliaGreat Northern. At the other extreme, where less than half gave a good or very good rating (in increasing order ofapproval): Connex, South West Trains, Virgin Trains, Wales & West Trains, Silverlink, Central Trains, First GreatWestern, Thames Trains, Northern Spirit, Thameslink, First North Western, and Anglia Railways. Most came in witha net unfavourable rating. The Shadow SRA reported that, even in the six months before the Hatfield tragedy only one •2•
BRITAIN’S RAILWAYS: STILL IN THE SIDINGS?TOC improved its year-on-year performance3. This was the Cardiff Railway Company: only seven IoD members in oursurvey had given a view of this so it is not reported above. In terms of passenger satisfaction (from a survey of 20thousand customers) the Shadow SRA rated the Island Line on the Isle of Wight the highest overall, followed byChiltern Railways4 (which was also ranked towards the top in the IoD survey). Only 10 directors had commented onthe Island Line in the IoD survey. Silverlink was lowest rated by the Shadow SRA: it came low down IoD members’rankings too.Train overcrowdingThe Government has repeatedly stated that train overcrowding is a matter of comfort (discomfort, certainly!) ratherthan one of health and safety5. We put that view to the test in the postal survey:- “THE GOVERNMENT HAS STATED THAT TRAIN OVERCROWDING IS NOT A HEALTH AND SAFETY CONSIDERATION; RATHER ONE OF COMFORT. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS VIEW?”Strongly Agree Agree Neither Agree Nor Disagree Disagree Strongly Disagree Don’t Know No Reply 2% 10% 4% 30% 50% 0% 4%Base: 553 survey respondents.A total of 79% disagreed with the Government view. We urge the Government to reconsider this policy. Weunderstand that there are arguments in support of the idea that overcrowding would not increase the likelihood ofdeath or injury in the event of a crash or derailment. However overcrowding means extreme discomfort at the veryleast. Apart from that it can hardly help those who actually want to work (or relax) while they travel, as some of the pastadvertisements for train travel have encouraged.After the floodsThe IoD conducted an online website-based survey of members’ views on the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s PreBudget statement, over several days beginning on the evening of 8 November 2000. The opportunity was taken toinclude supplementary questions about rail delays and flooding in parts of the UK. Of 582 IoD members respondingto that part of the survey, over 40% reported that their organisation had suffered from rail transport disruption or floods,or both, in the previous fortnight. The ill effects would doubtless have included any direct local effects but alsoconsequential ones such as dealings with suppliers and delays in getting to meetings. Of those who gave estimates ofthe costs of rail disruption alone, figures ranged from zero up to several tens of thousands of pounds. The median was£5000 (114 respondents). Ruth Lea, Head of the IoD Policy Unit, estimated that for the five weeks of rail disruptionup to the end of November 2000, the average costs for small and medium sized enterprises had risen to more than£14000, and for larger firms it totalled £40000. She called on “Railtrack and the train operating companies tonormalise the service as soon as possible” 6.“Even before the industry’s current problems there had been an unacceptable decline in performance”4, Mike Grant, Shadow SRAchief executive, December 2000.In the mid-2000 survey IoD members were asked about John Prescott’s assertion of two years ago (see page 1): ‘WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ASSERTION THAT “THE PASSENGER AND THE TAXPAYER ARE NOT GETTING A FAIR DEAL ON THE RAILWAYS”?’Strongly Agree Agree Neither Agree Nor Disagree Disagree Strongly Disagree Don’t Know No Reply 42% 32% 10% 10% 3% 1% 2%Base: 553 survey respondents.A total of 73% agreed or agreed strongly, 10% were neutral and 14% disagreed or disagreed strongly.
BRITAIN’S RAILWAYS: STILL IN THE SIDINGS?Has the SRA been given a train set for Christmas?In the mid-2000 survey there was a fair amount of support for partnerships:- “WHO SHOULD HAVE THE MAIN RESPONSIBILITY FOR IMPROVING BRITAIN’S RAILWAYS?”Body Proportion of respondentsGovernment working with the railway industry 73%Railway industry alone 14%Government alone 6%Other 4%No reply 3%Base: 553 survey respondents.Of the “Other” comments, a plea for some sort of independent non-political body cropped up most often.Views were also elicited about the Strategic Rail Authority – then the Shadow SRA prior to the passing ofthe Transport Act 2000. The SRA becomes operational in February 2001 and from the Spring theGovernment intends that the new body will assume control of all new investments in the rail network,leaving Railtrack responsible for routine maintenance (although it may still be in charge of themodernisation of the West Coast line) 7.The Shadow SRA had already been involved in working to reducethe number of TOCs and track maintenance companies. 8 Very few IoD members seemed to think that theSRA would help; only 13% indicated that it would make big improvements, 44% thought that it would not,41% were not sure and 1% did not reply. On this basis directors seemed unenthusiastic about the ability ofthis new quango to make a big impact. Others thought that the SRA will have too little power, influence orresources 9. To the dozens of TOCs and the track and the maintenance firms, have to be added theGovernment’s Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the SRA and the apparenttalking shop that is the Commission for Integrated Transport. Even to these must be added the Office of theRail Regulator, the various Rail Passenger Committees and the Rail Passenger Council. The signal shouldbe that the time to end analysis is rapidly approaching – if not already passed. The question must be asked,with so many bodies involved how have they collectively managed to allow things todeteriorate?“We’ve got a railway which is worse than three years ago. Why has your organisation stood by and let thishappen?”, Labour MP Gerry Steinberg, asking the Shadow SRA at a House of Commons Public Accounts Committeemeeting in November 2000 (quoted in reference 10).When the railway system is at its best, it can be a delight to travel by train. As far as business and thetravelling public are concerned it is now high time for action to restore Britain’s railway system to somethingto be proud of instead of nationally derided. This may have to include learning lessons from successfulservices such as those run by Japan Railways11.Geraint Day, Business Research ExecutiveJanuary 20011. Rt. Hon. John Prescott MP, quoted in Rail Business Intelligence, 30 September 1998.2. For example, see the SRA website at http://www.sra.gov.uk/Passenger_about/Default.htm.3. "Rail firms are fined record £17m for pre-Hatfield failings", Barrie Clement, The Independent, 16 December 2000.4. “Poor rail service ‘evident before Hatfield’”, Ben Webster, The Times, 16 December 2000.5. For example, transport minister Keith Hill MP, “Written Answers”, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) House of Commons Official Report, 11 January 2000, col. 114W.6. “IoD says rail problems remain disruptive for business”, IoD press release, 30 November 2000.7. “Ministers will strip Railtrack of strategic role in investment”, Paul Waugh, The Independent, 18 December 2000.8. “Rail firms face axe in bid to improve safety”, Jonathon Carr-Brown, The Sunday Times, 22 October 2000.9. For example, “Oh, Mr Prescott”, Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian, 22 July 2000.10. “By 2020, our trains should run on time”, Ray Massey, Daily Mail, 28 November 2000.11. “Rail chiefs look to oriental expresses”, Juliette Jowit, Financial Times, 14-15 October 2000. •4•