Is the RDG finally ‘manning up’?

RDG was therefore seen for what it was - a forum serving not the wider industry it claimed to represent, but the Association of Train Operating Companies’ owning groups, the freight companies and Network Rail. 

ATOC had never been set up as a trade association - it was there to perform the back-office and cross-industry functions needed in the post-Railways Act passenger railway, such as revenue sharing and railcard provision and management. And it showed - ATOC never functioned well when it tried to be a conventional trade organisation. So when RDG was set up with its name in small letters beneath the ATOC banner, further confusion followed. Not only was no one sure what it was or what it was for - but even what its name was.

Plummer, to his credit, has started to change all this. He is leading from the front and taking responsibility. He has even got rid of the ATOC name, at least dispelling confusion in the organisation’s reception as to who you’re talking to. And while it would be easy to mock a mere change of name, clarity of nomenclature and role are important. 

In the annual PR farce over fare rises, one of the reasons the industry is given such a tough time is that it is terrified to ‘bite the hand that feeds’, and refuses to make clear that regulated fares and season ticket increases are entirely a matter for Government. The Department for Transport traditionally keeps its head down, leaving the railway to ‘take the heat’ and fuelling a belief that ‘profiteering privateers’ are ripping passengers off. 

This year, it was different - and prominently so. In the very first couple of lines of the RDG fare increase statement, it said: “Fares are influenced by government policy, either through government-regulated fares such as Season tickets or as a result of the payments train companies make to Government. This money helps Government to support the biggest investment in our railway since Victorian times.”

In early February, after years of pressure from organisations such as Transport Focus, Campaign for Better Transport, Which? and RAIL too, there was finally acceptance that the complex, confusing and chaotic fares structure needed to be properly addressed (in contrast with the tinkering of recent years) and sensible pilots of potentially radical changes were announced.

During 2016, Plummer had been far more outgoing - and, crucially, open - in his dealings with the wider media generally and with RAIL in particular. And so I decided it was time to put him ‘on the spot’ for a RAIL interview. He agreed immediately and with good humour, too, notwithstanding my history of criticising ATOC and RDG.

We start with the biggest of his members… Network Rail. The infrastructure owner went into a major Christmas engineering programme under the lengthening shadow of the Great Western electrification, whose published costs have rocketed from £800 million to nearly £3 billion, and with the Midland Main Line scheme now widely tipped to be cut short at Kettering/Corby. As a result of NR ‘issues’ and high costs in Scotland, Transport Minister Humza Yousaf has demanded full devolution of infrastructure powers and responsibility to Holyrood, while elsewhere NR is under the cosh for allegedly eye-watering costs for reinstatements and reopenings.

Again, in response to increasing pressure and demand for change, Network Rail launched a contestability review under Peter Hansford into different ways of delivering major projects. The aim is to identify specific barriers to competition and find different ways of working; the report is due in spring 2017. Further major change is on the way to encourage closer working of NR and train operators in managing the network: in late 2016 Secretary of State  for Transport Chris Grayling announced the creation of joint Regional Operating Boards as part of an enhanced devolution plan.

Does he agree with Grayling’s plan for accelerated devolution of NR responsibilities and the creation of regional boards, with the operators?

“I think what they are trying to do is all the right stuff,” he responds. “But a lot of people find the pace of change is too slow. All the stuff around devolution - the focus on train operators as customers, through to the end customers- are all the right things, but unfortunately it takes time.

“The danger is that this causes impatience and somebody then does something more radical which pushes us off that course. But everybody wants to help NR -  everyone across the industry wants to help accelerate those changes.”

But do you and your members see these changes actually happening at NR?

“They all really want to help NR make all that a reality much quicker. Specifically on Infrastructure Projects (IP), as a supplier to the route, I think people would say that’s not yet happening and that on many projects IP is more alongside the route rather than a supplier to the route. So the narrative and commitment from the top of NR to change that is still there, but it’s taking longer than people hoped and they are not seeing that happen on the ground.”

Is it happening slowly - or not at all? I get a long and careful answer. He doesn’t avoid the question, but he treads cautiously… 

“Everyone is supportive of progress to give RMDs more accountability and more authority to make decisions locally, and they are keen to help accelerate this,” he says. 

“There is good work on route scorecards and route governance which hasn’t been fully implemented yet. And the routes are expected to develop and own their plans for their railway, particularly from 2019.  

“But there will inevitably be frustration, since the required culture change is hard and some routes are developing the required capability faster than others. That means the rest of the industry needs to help through local collaboration, and Government/ORR need to support these changes in the way they regulate NR or manage franchises to properly empower these local businesses.”

I think he’s saying: “Not yet.” I leave a silence and he moves into it.

“Most members were quite clear - there should be a much thinner centre of Network Rail, and the Routes should be much more empowered with a very light central holding company structure. What they want to see is the system operator - the technical authority - supporting the Routes to make sure you have a properly joined-up technical approach. 

“But it has not gone anywhere near as fast as some of them would have liked. So you see that in the frustrations in people - you see that in Route Managing Directors, because the top MDs really taking ownership is what everybody wants to see. Network Rail centre also wants to see that, and in this case it certainly isn’t happening as quickly as we want.”

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  • Nick Jones - 25/04/2017 18:18

    Good searching and very relevant questions. Unfortunately answers were punctuated with " we need that debate /conversation.......". In other words no real answers. Disappointing but not surprised.

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