I like Americans. They are generally direct people who can’t abide havering around and generally “tell it like it is”, albeit sometimes gracelessly. Their Confederate General Forrest went down in history ascribing victory to whoever entered battle the “Fustest with the Mostest”.
This week’s announcement by English Transport Minister Theresa Villers MP that First Group had won over Virgin to run the contract for West Coast Trains over the next 14 years shows that Cameron’s government is either not au fait with this American sentiment or that they seriously misinterpret it. Either way, it’s bad news if you plan to travel through Carlisle by train anytime before 2026.
After a long and ponderous period of bids being constructed, submitted and considered, the choice has gone to the one offering the most money. Such a simple criterion could have seen the matter sorted in an afternoon, without the lengthy sham that we have had. The Department for Transport (DfT) handed the contract to FirstGroup after Virgin’s rival made an offer to run the line for £423m a year or £5.5bn in total. Sir Richard Branson had bid £750m less.
At first (no pun) glance, this may appear reason enough. But, since this is one of the key rail services linking Scotland with the rest of the UK, we Scots need to know this is the best we could get. Leaving aside the whole debate about why we are running our railways in such an insanely inefficient fashion, let’s just focus on whether it’s the right choice.
Virgin West Coast had (rightly) come in for some serious stick during the dozen years they ran this franchise (see below). Unlike East Coast’s 9-car trains, VWC would often run 5-car sets and get swamped by un-booked passengers. This was not helped by running through the rail spaghetti that is South Lancashire/West Midlands, falling foul of delays to other services in a ‘knock-on’ effect.
On the other hand, they had completely revamped the rolling stock, providing modern carriages, even groundbreaking Pendolino tilting trains and an electronic seat reservation system that others are lax in not copying. They also survived the horrendous upgrade of the WCML (think ‘trams in Edinburgh’) with passengers intact and broadly satisfied. Much was from innovative management thinking growth and improvement as much as short-term profit.
Contrast that with FirstGroup.
Although they are not immediately comparable, the transport companies that make up FirstGroup bid fair to be among the shoddiest in the business. It is not that they can’t turn a profit; it’s that they seem to know about little else.
Consider their bus companies. The ones based in Aberdeen and Edinburgh each chose to run a fare war with their local rival over most of a decade. Until they won one and lost the other, passengers were dazed by timetable changes and floods of buses timed to run in front of one another. First regularly uses cheap buses from anywhere (the ones in East Lothian are currently liveried in Welsh), pays the meanest wages, gazumps councils into paying over the odds for supported services and could not care a fig about ‘service’. They’ve mastered the ‘cheap’ but have some ways to go on the ‘cheerful’.
Maybe their train companies are better? Well, ScotRail has had eight years under First. In that time Airdrie/Bathgate or Alloa or Lawrencekirk or Waverley station were all driven by the Scottish Government or SPT or Network Rail. In all else—ticketing, promotion, new services, new rolling stock, new anything—they have been passive.
Opportunities abound. Glasgow/Edinburgh-Aberdeen services are toy trains—too small to avoid oil workers and their bevvy, they stop at every lamp post. Rickety, antiquated two-car diesels carry tourists through our spectacular Highland scenery. Whether to Oban, Mallaig, Kyle or Thurso, it’s all on cheesy kit we should be ashamed of. And what of the jewel in their crown: Edinburgh-Glasgow? Same speed as Victorian times, the quarter-hour frequency often fails and you get someone’s elbow in your ear all the way because they’ve skimped with another 3-car unit.
FirstGroup run four other rail franchises already (Great Western, Transpennine, Capital Connect and Hull Trains), with only the first of these providing any experience of running real express trains over long distances. A New Statesman article comparing FGW with Virgin services provides interesting statistical detail:
Virgin Trains: The average Virgin train was 8 years old in 2011. The majority of its trains are electric Alstom Pendolinos, built between 2001 and 2004, with a second set delivered between 2009 and 2012. They can run up to 140mph, but only travel at 125mph on the West Coast Main Line. They had 266 complaints per 100,000 passenger journeys in 2011, 53% responded to within 20 working days. 1% of contacts were praise. In passenger surveys, 87% of respondents were satisfied or better with the company’s performance. In every category given, more than half of passengers were satisfied or better, with the least popular aspects being how Virgin deals with delays, the toilets on their trains, and the amount of space for luggage on the trains. 88% of people were satisfied with the speed of the journey.
First Great Western: The average FGW train was 29 years old in 2011. On its high-speed route, it runs 54 “Intercity 125” trains, built between 1975 and 1982. Although the fastest diesel trains in the world, the line is stymied by the lack of electrification. They had 86 complaints per 100,000 passenger journeys in 2011, 100% responded to within 20 working days. 5% of contacts were praise. In passenger surveys, 83% of respondents were satisfied or better with the company’s performance. The least popular aspects of FGW were how well it deals with delays, value for money of its tickets, and the toilets on its trains; none of them satisfied more than 40% of passengers. The most popular was the speed of the journeys, satisfying over 80%.
The problem with these comparisons is that FGW is largely the king of the track in those sections that matter (Paddington-Bristol-Cardiff & Bristol-Exeter-Plymouth)—as East Coast is on the ECML. Virgin West Coast had no such priority through the Midlands maze.
And it is this East Coast history that bodes ill for FirstGroup overbidding and Ms Villers et al blinded by pound signs in their eyes in choosing them. Looking over comments online, the vast majority think the Department for Transport’s decision was completely wrong. This view is backed up by a survey by the Telegraph. With over 17,000 votes, over 92% of respondents believe FirstGroup will not deliver on its promises and the price they have paid is not deliverable.
The Torygraph published a good article on the lessons the Government should have learnt from both East Coast Main Line stumbles. A rather more pungent and recent article goes on to explain why the decision is “nuts” and how FirstGroup are looking to “exploit” the West Coast mainline. Richard Branson has warned: “The three times that Virgin has been outbid, the winning operator has come nowhere close to delivering their promised plans and revenue, and has let the public and country down dramatically.”
If only First would live up to its name as a class. But the runes are not good.