Financial Times: April 18 2009
By Robert Wright, Transport Correspondent
Lord Adonis appeared to step up pressure on Network Rail bosses to forgo their bonuses, signalling their salaries should be sufficient reward for the job they do.
Interviewed in Norfolk this week during a tour that saw him travel 2,200 miles from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands to experience the network first hand, the transport minister described the performance of the rail owner and operator as "mixed".
The Financial Times reported last month that Lord Adonis had written to Iain Coucher, chief executive of Network Rail, accusing it of a "serious failure to take account of passenger interests" after disruptions caused by line closures.
This week he expanded that attack, pointing to three overhead line collapses on the London-Glasgow west coast main line in January and the simultaneous closure for engineering work of the east and west coast main lines last month as examples of failure.
Over the past five years, the company has increased from 80.5 per cent to 90.7 per cent the number of passenger trains arriving on time - within 10 minutes for long-distance services and five minutes for others.
Over the same period, it has successfully cut the cost for each unit of work carried out by 30 per cent.
Lord Adonis acknowledged there had been "some improvements" but there had also been "significant failures".
He went on: "I certainly would not say that Network Rail is incapable of significant improvement."
The Office of Rail Regulation obliges the company to have a bonus scheme as an incentive to improve performance. In 2007-8 Mr Coucher made annual bonuses of £511,000, on top of his basic pay of £539,000. Lord Adonis declined to say whether Network Rail's senior managers should be paid the bonuses they are due for this year. He said: "Bonuses are a matter for Network Rail. They are not a matter for government."
But he gave repeated hints that he wanted to see the bonuses withheld. "My view is that people who are paid good salaries for jobs should be expected to do those jobs for those salaries."
Lord Adonis also robustly defended the government's oversight of the rail network. Executives at companies that run passenger train franchises privately complain of micro-management by the Department for Transport, claiming that it stifles their ability to allocate resources efficiently.
However, it was important minimum service standards were demanded of train operators, Lord Adonis said. "Otherwise, there can be cuts in service which damage passenger interests."
He cited his action to force South West Trains, the UK's busiest rail franchise, to keep ticket offices open all day in places where the operator had wanted to reduce opening times.
The department had also specified in tender documents for the south-central franchise - which includes the London to Brighton route - due to start in September, that the successful bidder would need to provide extra car-parking and cycle storage.
Lord Adonis said: "Somebody has to stand up for the public interest where it's otherwise in danger of being neglected."
Franchised train operators generally had a near-monopoly over rail services on their route.
"I have no truck with those who say we should not be specifying, in appropriate detail, service levels," he said. "If we did not have those powers, I'm absolutely certain we would be forced to take them."
Train operators fail to impress Rail Minister Lord Adonis on network trip
The Times: April 18, 2009
Ben Webster, Transport Correspondent
Lord Adonis aboard the (delayed) Darlington to Newcastle train during his week-long journey of exploration
They had been given plenty of notice to spruce up stations, clean the toilets and tell staff to make every effort to impress the Very Important Passenger. Yet still Britain’s train companies failed to hide their shortcomings from the Rail Minister.
Lord Adonis will conclude today a week-long, 2,000-mile tour of Britain’s rail network, travelling on 40 trains in standard class unaccompanied by civil servants or minders. He is returning to Whitehall determined to force the operators to correct the many failings he witnessed.
They will have to comply with new minimum standards for stations, including availability of staff to advise passengers, cleanliness of waiting rooms and toilets, more parking spaces and longer opening hours for cafés and kiosks.
Lord Adonis also intends to reverse some of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, under which many double-track lines were reduced to single tracks to save money.
In an interview with The Times on a delayed train to Newcastle upon Tyne, the minister also promised to protect cheap off-peak tickets available on the day of travel. The Government was considering abolishing price controls and letting train companies charge what they like throughout the day.
The reforms that Lord Adonis is planning arise from his direct experiences. The Department for Transport had given the train companies details of the tour, including the trains he intended to catch. But the companies could not prevent passengers from complaining directly to the minister.
One complaint prompted him to ring the customer helpline number advertised on ticket machines by South West Trains at Southampton station. He said: “I was hanging on for several minutes but there was no answer. I will be chasing this up because helplines should be answered promptly.”
Lord Adonis said that ticket machines needed to be made easier to use to prevent passengers from overpaying. He noted that his press officer, who had travelled from London to Newcastle to attend the interview, had paid £103 too much for his standard- class ticket (£266 instead of £163) because the machine at King’s Cross had given misleading information.
Lord Adonis was also dismayed to find no refreshments at 8pm on Tuesday at Southampton, a station used by 5.5 million passengers a year. “My worst experiences have been on stations, not trains. I was about to board a two-hour train to Brighton and I couldn’t even buy a cup of tea.” Birmingham New Street was another bad experience; a terrible station that must be one of the worst 1960s planning disasters on the railway — no lights, dank and congested.
“I am considering in future specifying more radical station improvements as part of franchises: improvements in the quality of retail, the amount of parking, bike storage, waiting rooms, toilets and bus interchanges. I want the best to become the norm. At the moment the norm isn’t good enough.”
Lord Adonis said that he had been disappointed that toilets were often hard to find or out of order.He also experienced a long delay near Yeovil, which left him determined to remove bottlenecks caused by single-track sections of line.
“My train had to be held for one coming the other way. A lot of lines were mistakenly singled after Beeching. Redoubling the tracks makes sense with growing demand and the need for diversionary routes.”
The minister said that adding a second track between Swindon and Kemble was a priority, as was removing single-line sections between Yeovil and Exeter and on the Cotswold Line between Oxford and Worcester. He revealed that, as a schoolboy in the late 1970s, he had campaigned to prevent British Rail from closing the Cotswold Line.
One of the most frequent complaints he heard on his tour was about fares. Lord Adonis said that he wanted to help passengers find cheaper tickets bookable in advance, and he pledged to block any moves to deregulate cheap off-peak tickets available on the day of travel.
“It is very important that there is a regulated cheap off-peak fare. It is essential that we continue to guarantee it to the travelling public, and that won’t change under my watch.”
Lord Adonis said that he had not personally experienced difficulty in finding cheap fares because he had bought, on expenses, an all-lines Weekly Rover for £375.
He said that he wanted to promote the little-known ticket to encourage young people to tour Britain by train. “It would be great if travelling around Britain became part of a young person’s experience, as inter-railing around Europe is. You can get a good slice of Britain on the train.”
Train companies bracing themselves for a barrage of reforms will be relieved that they scored highly in one respect. The VIP train enthusiast twice left his cagoule and camera on a train and each time staff raced after him to hand them back.