“At the end of 2017, I’m very hopeful that we’ll say ‘we’ve achieved this, this and this, which is all very positive’. Then we can look forward to 2018. I’m very much in for the pilot, but I’m determined to make it work and to stay for the long haul, because I want to see other route boards being created and other people like me chairing them, sharing best practice and so on.”
The Western Route was an obvious candidate to trial Supervisory Boards, given the scrutiny that NR has come under following significant delays and postponements to its electrification of the GWML. Erecting and energising the wires beyond their current limit of Maidenhead through to Cardiff will be more than 18 months later than expected, and will not be completed until 2019, while Swansea, Bristol Temple Meads, Oxford and other routes will all have to wait until sometime in Control Period 6 (2019-2024). Meanwhile, since 2013, construction costs have risen from £1.6 billion to £2.8bn.
This significant slippage of the timetable has also caused the re-engineering of 21 nine-car electric IEPs into a fleet of bi-mode trains that are due to begin entering traffic with GWR in October, but which will now need to run for much longer using diesel power. This has cost the DfT more than £300 million, while the Department will also receive less income from the franchise to recompense GWR for higher running costs and less passenger revenue than expected.
Against a backdrop of heavy criticism from the Public Accounts Committee over poor project management and cost control, Fearn says that meaningful passenger improvements can only be achieved by all parties focusing on the task in hand, rather than on the mistakes of the past. It is this ‘half full’ attitude that he hopes will come to define his chairmanship.
“One of the reasons I think the Western was chosen is because there aren’t any franchise changes at the moment. Of course, in future the Boards will have to be able to deal with that, but to run a pilot it’s probably not a good idea. The second reason is because to make intervention worthwhile there has to be something for the Board to get its teeth into.
“Current performance is probably going to be top of the agenda, and there are things we can do now to get it onto an upward trajectory. Then, of course, the number two item is the implementation phases of the various investment programmes. Yes, that means electrification, but it’s not the only one. There are also new trains and the introduction of Crossrail services on the route to be managed.
“There’s no point crying all night about the fact that electrification isn’t going as far as we thought. What we should be saying is ‘we’ve got electrification in its first phase and new trains coming, so let’s get on with that implementation’. Phase two could be very much hot on the heels of that, so I’m not a whinger who says ‘we should have done that’, let’s just crack on and get the best for the passenger. Then we can debate, strategically, what the next longer-term phase is.
“We shouldn’t lose sleep over what we might not be able to do, because it’s not in our gift. Let’s focus on the things we can do. If there’s one thing I’m saying to these board members early on, it’s: ‘Let’s jointly work together as TOCs, NR and Transport Focus to influence the things we can’.”
In the absence of any official power or executive status, the Board’s main weapons will be through discussion and reaching consensus on major issues. Fearn’s role will therefore be to mediate, and to occasionally remind the Board members of the need for unity when there is disagreement or a lack of mutual understanding.
He says: “I’m an independent chairman, so I can’t summon anybody to anything, but what I can do is encourage them that it is a useful avenue to them. People have already asked me ‘what can you do if you don’t have any executive power?’ The answer is they’re absolutely right, I don’t have any - but the other people around the table have a huge amount of executive power. Winning on this board is to channel their efforts through their executive power in a co-ordinated way.
“The board is a mechanism by which we can co-ordinate the efforts of those who do have the power to make things happen. Most people come to work to do a good job and make a difference, but sometimes their efforts are not co-ordinated with the next person who is trying to do exactly the same thing. Through this board and other boards, we can aspire to co-ordinate everyone’s efforts to the end result.
“How can we do that? One of the ways is to look at the same numbers. One of the problems with looking at performance reviews and objectives is that if we’re all looking at different numbers, it’s not a good start for co-ordinated action. On the Board we will have a shared route card - everybody is committed to having an open agenda, so that we can have the same numbers and objectives.”
Fearn will have several logistical complexities to deal with, not least in giving representation to freight or train operators that traverse the Western Route, regularly crossing its boundaries from one route to another.
There will also need to be some facility to work closely with neighbouring Route Boards, where there is clear common interest. This is especially important for improving performance on the GWML, which is covered by the Western Route from Paddington as far as the Severn Tunnel, before entering into Wales and under the auspices of a separate Route Board. These finer details are expected to emerge over the course of the pilot, once there has been an opportunity for them to be tried and tested.
Fearn reveals: “We are going to meet sometimes at Paddington, but over the rest of 2017 some of our meetings will be held out and about the route. What we’ll almost certainly do when we go out to a location is to bring in someone from that area who has a real interest in making this work.
“In the same way that the GWML runs in Wales , there are operators who run over the Western Route but who are not primary operators, such as CrossCountry and freight. One of the things we’ve said already is that from time to time we will want to hear from them.