Fearing franchise change: why it is a mistake to ditch C2C

As a commuter and regular weekend passenger it is very easy to vent about the state of the railways.

Make that rant about the state of the railways.

I have always resented the insidious shift in terminology that, over the years, has seen me redesignated as a customer. I can choose where I buy my fruit and veg. I can’t choose who provides the train I get on. (More on that another time).

My family will have lost count of the number of occasions I have erupted on the phone about the basket-case services provided on the railways at weekends. Why is it that in one of the most prosperous Western countries, in the 21st Century, we still can’t run a comprehensive week and weekend service? It is a pathetic indictment of our national capacity to organise.

Taxi drivers will know my outbursts about the fact that the Germans appear to be able to run (and maintain and repair) a huge national rail network, with far fewer problems than us Brits, and with timetables that link in buses and trams. To the minute. It is astonishing we cannot, bearing in mind our national readiness to computerise and database our entire existence. (Sod the ID card database – lets try and get our buses to meet our trains!)

And on various occasions Em and I have cursed the running of short trains at busy times and the resultant cram into trains which simply aren’t designed for standing.

As I said. It is very easy to rant.

Much harder is crediting rail companies for their successes. And some, with the unlikeliest parent companies, have successes in abundance.

C2C operates the busy commuter line between Shoeburyness and London Fenchurch Street. There is a further loop line from Barking to Pitsea that runs through the old towns along the north flank of the eastern stretches of the Thames. These include the vast industrial wildernesses of Rainham and Dagenham, as well as Tilbury Town and East Tilbury, both of which have extensive maritime histories of civil and military significance, and the towns of Grays and Stanford-le-Hope, each home to a rapidly expanding commuting population.

I use Basildon, Laindon and Pitsea and, on the fastest trains, am a mere 25 minutes from central London.

C2C is owned by Network Rail, the company that ruined the East coast main line. I’ve always been a little schizophrenic on rail privatisation. To me, the railways as a service industry, unlike say HMV, but – as we have privatisation – I have wanted to see healthy and sensible competition to drive up standards. When Grand Central appeared on the scene, challenging National Express (the then principal operator on the East Coast Main Line), Em and I cheered, loving their livery, the uniformed presence of enthusiastic staff and the refurbishment of the well-designed intercities, with seats that line up with windows. Even now, Grand Central are going from strength to strength, introducing refurbished Class 180s and committing to re-engineering their existing High Speed Trains.

The Government were right to strip them of their franchise on that line.

I don’t know much about the East Anglia routes and how they operated. All I know are the anecdotal complaints from friends and colleagues bemoaning the state of their trains and stations. They suggest, unscientifically, that the decision to remove that franchise was justified.

C2C is different.

C2C is one of the very real success stories. And yet the Government has decided, apparently, that National Express will not be allowed to bid to retain the franchise. To my mind it is madness to punish the franchise operator, and a clearly able and committed management team, because of the various sins of the parent company.

When C2C announced that it was to change its livery from the distinctive purple and yellow to National Express’s bland white, I wrote to C2C expressing my dismay. Why on earth rebrand as failure? Why spend tens of thousands of pounds of commuter cash on making yourself look like a company that is despised? It was the most peculiar piece of PR – unless of course you were the owners of C2C and desperately wanted to repair your reputation by having it more closely associated with success.

Unlike the rest of the failed National Express rail enterprise, the team that manage C2C has shown a very real dedication to their passengers and services.

Unlike many lines, C2C manage all the stations as well as the trains. The only station managed by Network Rail is Fenchurch Street. (West Ham is managed by London Underground.) The difference between the investment at Fenchurch Street (minimal) and elsewhere on the line is marked.

New doors, stairs, waiting rooms, information systems and security systems have all been provided by C2C.

The management team engage passengers regularly, with meetings between a representative passenger panel and C2C – and C2C actually respond. C2C produces Commuter News, a monthly ad-free informative newsletter that explains the causes of problems, highlights coming improvements and draws attention to the engineering works scheduled for weekends.

C2C modernised its entire fleet of trains – yet retains a sense of the old romance with trains named after those who have worked their lives on the railways. They have won awards for introducing regenerative breaking across the entire fleet – something that has made them one of the most environmentally-conscious train-operating companies in Europe.

Most ironically, whilst the Department for Transport rail against National Express and C2C, both the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office point to C2C as an exemplar of a UK train success story.

It would seem that this tired and failing Labour Government is either ideologically sclerotic or determined to prioritise a petty retribution over genuine achievement in the passenger’s interest.

If there is any sense left in Government, Adonis and his crew will at least allow National Express to bid. Regardless of their other failures, National Express/C2C know this line, have shown commitment to their trains, stations and passengers.

They have transformed the “misery line” into one that regularly tops the customer satisfaction surveys and became the first in the country to achieve a punctuality score of 96%.

Ditching C2C would be a big mistake.

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