The railway is trapped in limbo as planned reforms are held up. Meanwhile, turning around TransPennine Express is a huge task

The TPE franchise has been a poisoned chalice since Day 1

Doom and gloom, I know and yes, I’ve documented the ills of the current set-up in UK rail at length for some time now – but the suggestion, which has gathered credence, that the creation of Great Britain’s Railway (GBR) might not get an airing in the fourth and final parliamentary session before the general election feels like the last straw. For those of us, such as I, who aren’t immersed in the detail of how something gets parliamentary airtime, it looks like one of those lazy situations, like an executive meeting where an item gets shunted off the agenda because there’s too much to discuss. It feels like one of those ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ scenarios.

‘CBA’ is teenage lingo in our house for ‘can’t be arsed’. This behavioural trait could on the one hand be applied to the government in the case of GBR, though more likely it’s a deliberate ploy to keep the railway out of the public eye in the year before a general election, and not to embark on something that could implode if handled badly, even though enacting GBR would probably command more respect among voters than damage. There’s an element of CBA, though, like someone who knows they are in their notice period in their job and doesn’t embark on new initiatives because they won’t reap the rewards and they’d rather wind down.

We have this ridiculous situation where the GBR team – not unreasonably, I might add (we’d all do the same) – publicly is acting, almost in denial, that it is ‘business as usual’

So, we have this ridiculous situation where the GBR team – not unreasonably, I might add (we’d all do the same) – publicly is acting, almost in denial, that it is ‘business as usual’. Anit Chandarana, its smooth-operator spokesperson, is still nobly doing the conference rounds, with his very well-scripted and uncontroversial speeches about the bright future ahead. GBR continues to produce high-profile recruitment campaigns that seek to keep an increasingly disbelieving audience excited about being part of an unprecedented, legacy-lasting change. Meanwhile, we have Rail Partners, a new organisation that will represent the TOCs, articulating its views as though the new future has already arrived, whilst the RDG, which has been on a life-support machine for at least five years, is refusing to just die. And who can blame them?

LinkedIn posts from bright-eyed, uncynical, stars of the future, celebrate their appointment or secondment to GBR, to be part of a game-changing new world, leaving behind, in some cases, a mix of envious colleagues at the TOCs from whence they came. I’d have succumbed to it in my youth – in fact, as recent as a couple of years ago when the prospect of joining GBR when the future felt more real and very compelling – if they’d opened their doors to a reprobate such as I.

Pick away at the veneer, though and even the optimists at GBR are getting frustrated as the dream feels further away than ever. At times, the only hope left is the deeply impressive duo leading the crusade, in Lord (Peter) Hendy of Richmond Hill and Andrew Haines – the best leadership Network Rail and its predecessor has had, by a distance. Will the reality of change on the railway come even in their career lifespan, though and is it fair to pin all our hopes and the burden of responsibility on them alone? If they jacked it in, it would be like the ravens taking flight from the Tower of London. Thankfully Hendy has just had his term extended by two years.
Whilst Hendy and Haines will be battling hard to do what they can without legislation to enact positive change, the challenge is that the key forces affecting the industry are as unaligned as possible. We’re not talking about the old days when the TOCs and Network Rail were on different planes, or the owning groups were sparring with the Department for Transport/Strategic Rail Authority. Those spats could be quashed and controlled, whereas today, the Treasury, DfT, GBRTT and trade unions seem to be as far apart as ever. Stuck in the middle are the beleaguered customers and employees.

Customer service protagonists like us and particularly those, such as I, who struggle with complexity, cannot fathom why simple things such as just knocking current franchise agreements on the head and rolling out Passenger Service Contracts can’t be achieved. I don’t care whether it’s the DfT or GBRTT who procure them, just get on with it. Legend has it (somewhat exaggerated, no doubt) that the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising’s Chris Stokes and John O’Brien planned on a flip chart in their small office in London Bridge the entire franchising programme in one afternoon – and it was delivered in barely a year.

Williams must feel as frazzled as his hairstyle right now, not just with Royal Mail but the fact that his rail review hasn’t left the station

Within this mess, it’s impossible not to be cynical about most things these days. Remember the eulogies for Keith Williams, the genial bloke who must have been customer-centric because he rose up the ranks at British Airways in its pomp and at John Lewis, where the customer is king. He made his report sound amazing, even if it rather stated the obvious, just because of his reputation. He was an outsider looking in with a fresh perspective, coming to rescue us lot who just couldn’t see the wood from the trees. Then there were whisperings that he filled his team with aviation folk and missed out talking to some wise sages in rail and of course, five years on, with the report not having found the light of day and it is conveniently traduced in some quarters, Williams’ reputation isn’t so glowing. He’s been on the board of Royal Mail since 2018, moving from deputy chair to chair a year later, a national institution that a few weeks ago posted a £1bn loss and is at the lowest ebb in its 500-plus year history in terms of customer service delivery, financial disrepair and dreadful industrial relations. Williams must feel as frazzled as his hairstyle right now, not just with Royal Mail but the fact that his rail review hasn’t left the station.

What now for TransPennine?

Cynicism and sub-plots abound – just look at the reaction to the decision last month to strip First Group of its TransPennine (TPE) franchise last month. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that the government bowed to stakeholder pressure which felt exacerbated by what looked like a deliberate and concerted effort by the trade unions to work to rule to bring about nationalised ownership. Reports suggest that Avanti is next on their hit list.

Under First’s stewardship, TPE was on the slightest of upward trajectories before they got the bullet. A bit more patience and trust in First’s ability to recover situations might have yielded results – it did at troubled GWR, and more recently at Avanti and SWR. Whereas the Directly Operated Holdings Limited (DOHL) were probably welcoming the opportunity to get their paws on East Coast, Northern and South Eastern, feeling that their problems were solvable, I bet they don’t, deep down, feel they have a winning formula at TPE, a franchise with historical working conditions that no one has cracked and in which the government, in the current cost-cutting regime, will not want to budge an inch on.

DOHL’s ownership of TPE has not been universally welcomed. As I suggested before, a perception of ‘have’s versus have nots’ exists in the train operator fraternity and this does cause quite a lot of exacerbation among some quarters in the private TOCs and elsewhere. Before anyone gets hot under the collar, I say ‘perception’ here, which can, of course, sometimes be different to reality. Whilst there doesn’t appear to be a commonly accepted understanding as to whether DOHL is saving or increasing costs for the industry with its stewardship of TOCs, this propagates those who think it has it easier, both in terms of finances and scrutiny, by comparison to the private operators. Shorn of the ultimate sanction of not being able to lose its franchise, it must be harder for the DOHL team to feel the same pressures experienced by those in the private transport-owning groups and their subsidiaries. There’s been no countdown either in terms of when they might hand the franchises back, just an intent that this will, most likely, happen at some point.

From a resource perspective, the DOHL, despite their impressive stewardship to date, must be also under pressure to be able to have the bandwidth to take on any more franchises. Despite the stability their largely unchanged team has created since taking over East Coast in 2018, they also won’t be immune from the need to keep continuously fresh, contemporary, reinvigorated and aligned to current and future market needs. Apart from leaving franchises in good shape, which so far they look very much on track to do, DOHL needs to gradually transition each TOCs management team back so they can work effectively back in a private sector regime and deliver a new type of contract, under the PSRs.

Whatever the perceptions, DOHL has done a good job, blessed by inheriting three highly capable MDs in Messrs Horne, White and Donovan. The customer service experience at their TOCs appears to be at the upper and innovative end, although, since Covid, we haven’t had a decent, consistent barometer of customer satisfaction across all the operators in the way that Transport Focus used to achieve well over two decades with its National Passenger Satisfaction Survey. That there is nothing new on a comparable, consistently applied national, regional or TOC-specific basis is, disappointing.

This franchise has been a poisoned chalice since Day 1. Superimposing an inter-urban operation on a capacity-constrained and under-invested, complex railway, where there was also a predominant train company, in Northern, was never going to be easy

Back to TPE and this franchise has been a poisoned chalice since Day 1. Superimposing an inter-urban operation on a capacity-constrained and under-invested, complex railway, where there was also a predominant train company, in Northern, was never going to be easy. Throw in the complex rolling stock issues that emerged, exacerbated by a fleet profile more mixed in composition than many and much larger TOCs, as well as the botched timetabling exercise in May 2018, and it’s little wonder that history books will, despite passenger growth and high levels of customer satisfaction in its early years, tell a tale of more misery than joy. My own experiences from travelling have been, though, of a product trying to provide snippets of the best of inter-city but undermined by overcrowding.

Any owning group will have struggled with TPE. The trade unions claim that a leadership failure and inability to engage was, though, First’s nemesis. Its longstanding operations director, Paul Watson, who has worked for me in the past, was a first class communicator with the highest integrity (up until his recent retirement), and its customer service director, Kathryn O’Brien is hugely regarded. Where TPE may have struggled is not having had for a sustained period someone at the helm at the very cutting edge of experience and with a hugely visible and charismatic style, well respected from the frontline upwards – a Tom Joyner, Mark Hopwood, Patrick Verwer type from the current cadre of MDs, for instance.

I feel for First, just as I do all the current private transport groups, who display resolve and blunted commercial flair. I believe that all of them are striving to do the best for customers and managing to deliver, in their way, improvements that are sometimes underestimated. Meanwhile, from my own tiny, micro-interaction with TPE, it felt like they were trying to function in an environment where there was too much stakeholder influence or control. I remember hatching a plan with Transport Focus and the TPE customer experience management team to spend around £20k which was already committed for them to invest in customer service, on a very detailed customer insight programme. All parties were up for it, but it had to be signed off by Transport for North and nothing happened.

Whether TPE will in the foreseeable future become masters of their destiny, is anyone’s guess. Will they be trusted with freedom now they are in the public sector? I’ve always been sanguine about the benefits of nationalisation versus privatisation. However, what I do object to is this situation where state ownership of TOCs has in recent times been allowed to creep in and then morph towards a position of such increased dominance, without a proper transparent debate or stated strategic plan being unleashed into the public domain.

Having been fine about one or two TOCs being under DOHL control, it now feels weird that large swathes of the railway, if you also include Scotland, are overseen by a ‘safe pair of hands’ team of senior rail professionals parachuted in because the private operators – who delivered record growth, I might add – can’t be trusted to do the right thing. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of UK rail. Little wonder that for this reason, among others, including the derisory low, single-digit margins on offer for all this hassle, bad press and distrust, new companies that I try and entice to join the market, are distinctly underwhelmed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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