Traingate – West coast mainline debacle

Summary

Once the blaming has been done, then what?

I picked this up in the early hours just before sleepfail, astonished at both the decision and the timing of its announcement. For those of you not aware, the decision by the Government to award the West Coast franchise to the First Group rather than to the Virgin Group that currently have it, has been quashed by the new Transport Secretary. The link above explains who got what wrong. The announcement from DfT is here.

When hearing this, the first thing I knew was that the civil service – and the civil servants at the heart of the tendering process – were going to get a kicking. Ministers quite rightly are separate from the tendering process. In principle it stops ministers awarding contracts to their chums directly. (It doesn’t stop ministers putting into place a system of outsourcing that firms their chums own can then bid for – which is what The Green Benches raises the issue of with the NHS).

I tweeted through Puffles earlier that this episode was also going to be the acid test for the Coalition’s decision to publish the details of senior civil servants across Whitehall & beyond. This is the first incident I can think of since the Coalition took office where a specific screw up by civil servants (or so it seems) on an epic scale has happened – one that cannot be straight-forwardly placed at the ministerial door. (That’s going by the information released in the DfT’s press release). The DfT has declined to release the names of those suspended. This touches upon the issue of when it is appropriate to name the people at the centre of incidents such as this at one end, to those accused of crimes at another. Given the nature of a sensationalist media, it’s all too easy to tar those suspended as being culpable.

The inquiries announced by the Secretary of State

Two inquiries have been announced by the Transport Secretary – led by non-executive directors within the department. In the past I’ve spoken quite positively about how non-executive directors can have a positive influence on departments – especially those that reach out to staff to get a feel for the department and also as a means to break through barriers that might otherwise prevent staff from speaking out on things. This will be one of the first public examples where non-executive directors will be asked to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Civil servants tend to be publicity-shy & don’t like to rock the boat as a generalisation. They are not like Puffles – who definitely is not camera shy! Far better to have a quiet word with someone to say “you need to look at this” (perhaps putting it on record) & leave it at that. Sometimes you have to say “I’ll go along with this, but I want it noted that I have reservations with this”. It’ll be interesting to see if the first inquiry uncovers whether any official put their concerns in writing and on the record – and if so, what those concerns were.

Is the problem the design of the silk purse or the pigs ear of material used to make it?

This is where the remit of the second announcement is particularly interesting – and I was briefly part of a Twitter exchange involving rail experts Nigel Harris and Christian Wolmar. Is the problem the way the franchising tender was done, or is the problem with franchising per se, and thus should alternative systems for running the railways (from giving the train operators the rights to own the tracks AND rolling stock at one end, to full renationalisation at the other) be considered? My understanding from the press release from the Department for Transport is they have gone for the former – the Secretary of State quoted as saying:

“I have ordered two independent reviews to look urgently and thoroughly into the matter so that we know what exactly happened and how we can make sure our rail franchise programme is fit for purpose.”

Well…I don’t think he actually ‘said’ those words – more a press officer drafted those lines to take as being suitable for release to the media. If I were a Monster Raving Loony Party candidate (like local dragon fairy follower Lord Toby Jug) I’d insist that all press releases quoting a minister saying something is accompanied by a recording of the minister actually saying those words – otherwise we can’t be sure!

“So Pooffles, when are you going to renationalise the railways then?

If the railways are to be renationalised, it’s not something that would be done in any ‘big bang’ way. In anycase, it goes against the grain of the Conservatives, who privatised it in the first place. Some of you may be aware of my previous blogposts on the railways – including Who cares about the railways where I say my preferred system is a state-owned railway network – as well as highlighting the licences to print money granted by ministers in the mid-1990s.

Activists within Labour have made repeated calls for the renationalisation of the railways, though as with many things Labour at the moment, it’s not clear what their policies are, despite a few new announcements at the conference. (I think they are still at policy review stage). The Liberal Democrats are also not clear on ownership of the railways. The Greens have a clear policy on renationalisation – they back it. I’m assuming we can take the announcement by the Transport Secretary as a ‘wait and see’ for the review to report back – reasonable given the circumstances, but I feel that for political reasons he has restricted the terms of reference of the review.

Another stick to beat the civil service with?

That’s what makes me nervous given Francis Maude’s comments the day before – accusing civil servants of deliberately blocking policy. In all the policy areas and for all of the ministers that I have worked for, I can honestly say that I have never come across civil servants getting together to thwart the policies of a minister or ministers. We may not have liked some policies, we may have picked lots of holes in them, but being professionals we got on and did our jobs. Even when it meant completely undoing what a predecessor minister wanted, or even when it meant writing selves out of our own jobs.

That’s not to say where something has gone wrong there should not be accountability. In previous blogposts I have called for a greater number of senior civil servants to appear before Parliament. Following the departmental inquiry, I expect the Transport Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee to summon civil servants to appear before them to account for what happened. Expect those sessions to be fiery.

And a little bit on social media too?

Interestingly the FDA Union has been silent – certainly as far as their web page is concerned. (It has no Twitter presence). The DfT put out a tweet linking to the press release, but other than that, much of the published/quoted debate and reaction has been in political and rail circles. It will be interesting to see whether sustainable transport campaigners such as the Campaign for Better Transport make a publicity drive on the back of this incident.

UPDATE – 04 October 2012

Just to add, there are a couple of blogposts defending the civil service in this episode:

:

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2 Responses to Traingate – West coast mainline debacle

  1. margecsimpson says:

    Thanks for all the background info. A really interesting post. I find myself supporting both you and Bob Crow on this one

  2. aj says:

    What amazes me is the sheer cost of the franchise process, for this one franchise, bidders have spent a minimum of £40 million. The cost within the DfT in establishing the bidding process, examining the bids and reaching a decision will be at least the same (more likly double or triple).

    That is at least £80 million taken out of the rail industry just for one franchise, there are 15 franchises up for renewal in the near future and over 40 in total.

    That equates to £billions spent on some Faux competition process for a privatised railway industry, the same industry that is increasing its profits at the expense of customers who suffer yet more inflation busting price rises. Surely there must be a better way? Surely the waste needs highlighting?

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