Who says Government is in bed with business? The tale of the Transport Minister and the Train company…
Good old British Rail eh? It had its problems, but at least it was an institution. Now, of course, we have the current franchise system, the same one that has poor old Richard Branson with his knickers in a twist after his Virgin trains lost the West Coast mainline franchise earlier this year.
But tenders are not the only opportunity for Government to show who their friends are- and whose interests they serve- is it those of the shareholders of train franchise companies or the millions of passengers and rail workers in the country. Take London Midland as an example.
London Midland currently holds the franchise for rail travel, well, in the Midlands and London. It operates local services in the West Midlands and services between London and Liverpool. It is owned by Govia, which is part of the Go Ahead group, which also runs the Southern and South Eastern rail franchises, as well as bus services.
Recently, London Midland decided it wanted to close some stations completely and reduce staffed opening hours on 79 stations in the West Midlands. Under the terms of its franchise, it can do this, if passengers agree. They did not. Passenger Focus had over 18,000 complaints against the proposals (and one for them). Again, according to the franchise agreement, London Midland had to take their plans to the Department for Transport as arbitrator.
Now, the DfT is supposed to consider the case and decide whether to allow or deny the proposal depending on whether “the change improves current arrangements in terms of quality of service and/or cost effectiveness, and whether members of the public would still enjoy widespread and easy access to the purchase of rail products” (Bitterwallet emphasis). Additionally “the needs of the elderly and disabled would have to be carefully considered, including options for access to ‘assisted purchase’ channels for those who may find it particularly difficult to use a ticket machine or to buy their ticket online.”
One would assume that it would be hard to argue that closing stations or removing staff would improve quality of service. Although London Midland have agreed to insert ticket machines, surely this does not really consider the needs of those who can't use one. So the fact that the DfT approved the proposals, despite widespread petitions and demonstration, suggests that cost-effectiveness was paramount. But cost-effective for whom?
It is not likely to be cost-effective for customers, after all, train companies are permitted to increase fares above inflation every year and they are more likely to accidentally buy a more expensive ticket than is necessary from a machine than where there is a station officer to guide them.
This will not be cost-effective for the Government- the amount of annual stipend London Midland will receive was agreed years in advance, and the Government does not get money back now that less service is being provided.
So the reason must be that it is cost effective for the train company that jointly made a £40million operating profit on its railway franchises in the 12 months to June 2012 to close down stations and lay off staff. The same franchise that is described in its annual report as “the only franchise of its time not to be in receipt of revenue support”. We presume this means “the one making the most money”.
Understandably there are lots of people who think this isn’t on. TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes said:
“Mr Baker [the Transport Minister] has some cheek to spin these closures as being in the interests of passengers. It is simply not good enough to say passengers can use a ticket vending machine when the ticket office is shut”
“Families, the elderly, disabled and young should not be left to fend for themselves in the evenings and at weekends. There is also the question of security with passengers returning home later in the evenings to unstaffed stations.”
He went on, possibly slightly angrily: “Mr Baker makes further capital from the fact that not all the ticket offices proposed for closure are being closed with some facing reduced opening hours instead. This only reflects the faustian bargain which his government has done with private train operators whereby the train operators apply to close twice as many ticket offices as they plan to and the government gets to claim credit for reducing the number.” All the 5 stations saved from closure have instead been given opening times of around 2 hours a day, weekdays only.
Centro chairman Coun John McNicholas (Lab Coventry Lower Stoke) told The Birmingham Post “London Midland recently said that reducing staff will not save them any money [as they would have to install ticket machines]. If that is the case we fail to see why they did not listen to the 18,000 passengers and disabled groups who objected.” Documents leaked by the RMT suggested the jobs lost would save London Midland £1.2m a year.
“We also fail to see what possible benefits there are to London Midland, the Department for Transport, or, most importantly, the passengers in driving through these changes” he finished.
But why do you care? Unless you are served by a London Midland train, you probably aren’t concerned about the stations, or the station staff who will lose their jobs. But maybe you should be- since 2010 the Department for Transport has agreed every single one of the 113 requests to reduce the opening hours of stations, with no corresponding reduction in the £millions of stipends paid to the seven franchise operators who are now offering a poorer service.
We asked London Midland for a comment, but considering they ignored 18,000 people, rail and transport unions, employees, passengers and MPs, we weren’t expecting an answer. Miraculously, however, we did get one. Specifically we asked them how they could think about reducing staff numbers when today’s service was disrupted “owing to a member of train crew being unavailable”. Considering this single member of staff led to (at least) 18 services being cut short of otherwise disrupted and 12 services being cancelled altogether, we think this must be a fairly important member of staff. Either that, or the London Midland employees are making a point. They said they were "temporarily short of traincrew, which is a result of a vacancy gap. We have recruited a substantial number of new members, and will continue to do so, but this takes some time while they are under training." We wouldn't like to suggest they weren't being truthful, but it is amazing that this one instance of temporary short-staffedness has such a massive effect on so many train services on one single day, and no other. They also claimed they did not know how many people would lose their jobs as a result of the DfT decision. Guess they must have just plucked that £1.2m staff savings figure out of the air then.
Still, perhaps all this fuss, and the disgruntledness of consumers, might make the Government think again when Govia go for the Thameslink franchise next month. But then again, maybe not. It's not what you know...