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Sunday, 30 May 2010

Approaches to efficiency: LMS vs LSWR - some facts and some thoughts

This week I read an excellent journal article by Roy Edwards, of Southampton University's Management school, titled 'Job analysis on the LMS: mechanisation and modernisation c.1930-c.1939'. The article focussed on how the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) came to the decision to modernise, reorganise and rebuild many of its freight depots on the network in an attempt to reduce labour costs and increase efficiency. This was part of an attempt by the company to make the LMS freight haulage services more competitive with the road hauliers that, by the mid to late 1930s, had attracted vast swathes of the company's traffic onto the roads. I hope Roy doesn't mind if I give a very brief synopsis of his article.

He describes how the LMS in 1933 employed Lewis C. Ord to investigate performance at goods yards and depots and he analysed the work using the measure of how many hours it took for a ton to move through the depot (hours per ton). His test case was the reorganisation and mechanisation of goods sheds at the company's Blackburn depot. Here he tried many experiments and reduced the time that it took for each ton to move through it. So, for example, in the forwarding goods shed a ton's movement dropped from 2 hours to 1.1 hours. He also tried experiments at the Oldbury yard.

The LMS, based on guidance in Ord's final report, thereafter began to reorganise, redesign and mechanise goods sheds. A department was set up at the LMS headquarters to examine shed design and the instillation of mechanical equipment. In attempts to bring costs under control, the department used systematic analysis of information gathered at terminals, such as the total tonnage moved, the total hours it took and the hours per ton. Yard agents then used this data to analyse operational efficiency. The information was also collated weekly for a monthly report that would aid in the control of yard and shed expenditure. In addition, a sub-section of the divisional superintendent of operation's staff was set up in 1931 to look at the shunting methods. Its remit was extended in 1937 to include 'modernisation proposals and additional monitoring.' Further, other statistical measures were gathered such as 'Daily Analysis of Work,' 'Detailed Analytical survey of work' and the district goods managers were informed of efficiency via the 'Handled tonnages and wages return.' These figures were all collated and forwarded to the monthly district goods managers meetings for analysis.

This data collected therefore became a contributory factor in decisions regarding the rearrangement, rebuilding and mechanisation of goods terminals. In 1933 Lemon, the vice president of the Institute of Transport congress, estimated that these changes could save the company £1.5 million on the wages of handling staff. However there was a problem. While reducing labour costs seemed good for the struggling company, economies that were made on staff reductions did not factor in the cost of the investment, and thus what savings were made were in many cases wiped out. Edwards describes how at Walsall economies of savings on staffing costs were estimated at £1000, but that the outlay on the modernisation cost £9950. At Tipton, the board noted that an outlay of £51,000 would result in savings in labour costs of £550 per annum, with additional charges resulting from traders using the LMS's facilities amounting to approximately £2460. The reason for this, was that the benefits of investment were not known and on many occasions the justification for investment was broad. For example at Oldbury all the directors could state was that there would be 'quicker turnaround, reducing delay, less congestion and improved service to the public'. Indeed their opinion was that, 'economy cannot be estimated.' At Tipton Edwards states that there would be 'other advantages which cannot be evaluated e.g. improvements in the shunting arrangements and in the mobility of the wagon stock.' Simply put, the benefits of investment were never worked out and never truly known.

Edwards' conclusions are clear. Firstly, the LMS was groping its way forward with regard to the systematic statistical analysis of their operations, from a point where previously there had been little, and there was the development of more sophisticated management measures to analyse the efficiency of the workplace. However, secondly, there was little accurate analysis of the financial costs and benefits that would be incurred by the investment and thus increased efficiency was not rarely remunerative. In short the LMS made their operations more efficient, and they knew it, but it came at a cost. If you feel so inclined, the article is excellent and really gives a good insight into the mindset of late 1930s railway managers operating under difficult circumstances. It can be found in Vol. 20, No.1. pp 91-105 of Accounting, Business & Financial History.

This paper really made me think about the way that the London and South Western's (L&SWR) managers thought about cost control. Indeed, I was stimulated to think about what linkages can be made between the way pre and post-1922 railway management made decisions. Edwards' research has shown that while there was increased data gathering and analysis before and after a yard was modernised so as to measure efficiency, the actual benefits were unknown, and the LMS relied on impressions and 'hunches' to make decisions. My question is why was this so? Where did this evidently deficient way of analysing investment come from? I believe that my work, that ultimately focusses on decision making in the L&SWR, may hold the answer.

It is clear that the L&SWR managers were not as advanced as those on the LMS years later. They exhibited the same uncertainty in decision-making as those that followed them on later railway companies. If there is a consideration of efficiency measures that were implemented throughout the company's history Edwards' assessment that there was 'little' or no cost-benefit analysis and that decisions were made on impressionistic grounds, are more prolific in the period before 1922.

For example, in 1879 a special committee of L&SWR directors instructed their senior managers to proffer 'any suggestions that may occur to them upon it or any method by which the revenue of the company may be increased. Also any information as to possible reductions of Train mileage, reductions of trains or reductions of working expenses.' Accompanied with no analysis, the result was a list of ideas from the different departments, some of which were highly speculative with regard to their benefits in terms of cost or efficiency. For example, amongst the suggestions were included, better timetables and advertising, more powerful engines that would save fuel, better organisation at the Nine Elms goods yard, the expedition of workshop improvements at Nine Elms and improved services between Southampton, Salisbury and Portsmouth.

This said, there were some suggestions where the savings would have been much easier to quantify, for example, reductions in gas and water consumption, dispensing with the stores' department's branch offices, e.g. at Bishopstoke, reducing the number of travelling inspectors overall and restricting numbers of guards on goods trains to one. Indeed, another economy drive in 1885 categorised some of the company's ongoing buildings works by their immediate necessity to operations, enabling it to put on hold a number and enabling the company to defer identifiable costs. However, overall in the long run there was no way that they could determine the benefits of these measures using rudimentary assessments.

Further, day to day decision making in committees, for example the building of new goods sheds, extra sidings for traffic, new rolling stock and extra staff, all tended to have no cost-benefit conducted beforehand. In the case of many station alterations, decisions to augment facilities are simply made without any detailed job or process analysis, rather investments were made, in some cases, simply on the recommendation from the Traffic Manager, Superintendent of the Line, or even the Station Agent. Therefore, I have become aware of a major difference in the decision-making process between the majority of the decisions that the L&SWR made between 1850 and 1922 and the those made by the LMS that relied on more detailed job analysis. Whereas the LMS tried to work out the efficiency of the operations and attempted to improve them, even if the cost-benefit analysis was lacking, the L&SWR's whole decision-making process was based on untested justifications. Therefore, I feel I may have found a reason why their was such a laissez-faire attitude towards analysis of investment, and it has already been hinted at.

It is quite evident that the managers of the L&SWR had one constant that shaped the way that policy was dictated from the 1830s right through to the end of the company in 1922. This was the expectation that traffic levels would continue to increase unabated. In 1860 the L&SWR, whose main goods depot was at Nine Elms, started to find that because of traffic increases that this site was getting cramped, especially as it was shared with the Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon works of the company. A special committee of the board was formed to discuss the question. One option was to move the works into the country. This was not done, and eventually they were relocated to the southern side of the main line so the goods yard and sheds could be expanded. In the course of the discussions the Traffic Manager of the company, Archibald Scott, stated that in the 20 years after 1860 'should the Traffic increase as was seasonally expected,' the land given over to the Traffic department would be insufficient for its management. This statement illustrates a possible mindset of the L&SWR management before 1922.

The period before 1922 was when the railways had the biggest share of the market with regard to traffic movement. They were a virtual monopoly and as such, with the increasingly expanding economy, traffic continued to rise exponentially. Therefore the most pressing issue for managers was how the infrastructure would cope with this fact. Cost reduction, except in the Locomotive department (for which a whole paper could be written) was not an ongoing concern like on the LMS where they attempted over time to reduce costs of operations. Cost reduction in major affairs was simply a matter of the company instituting economy drives when profits dropped, like the special committees noted above, or the company securing the cheapest contractor when contracts were put out to tender. Operational effectiveness was not assessed, and possibly this is because the expectation was that eventually any investment would be covered by the constantly rising revenues.

One last point, isn't it interesting that the LMS only started looking at its operational practices in detail when the company was under financial pressure, whereas the L&SWR, who never had the same strained and was graced with constantly rising traffic and revenue, never felt the need to assess how their operations worked in half as much detail. Of course I hope to develop my ideas further, and this has been a rushed effort at developing a theory, but I hope that I have made a good start. Oh, and thank you Roy for stimulating me.

Sources: Edwards, Roy, 'Job analysis on the LMS: mechanisation and modernisation c.1930-c.1939,' Accounting, Business & Financial History, (2010) Vol. 20, No.1. pp 91-105

Image source: - A great site with loads of railway images

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Are the North and South, Rich and Poor in Transport Terms?

I don't think that it would surprise you if I said hat London's transport network gets more money than those in the other regions of the country. Truth be told, most people can acknowledge this fact without having travelled around Britain extensively. Indeed, when I went on a little jaunt round Britain last year this difference was something I noticed. Being a regular user of public transport in London, the seats I sat on, the information boards I looked at and the trains I rode on, were not up to the standard I was used to. This was a contrast especially stark when travelling in the north of the country. I did not, however, complain, and put the differences down to underfunding.

Yesterday I got some basic evidence delivered to me that confirmed my belief. The difference in the funding for transport, especially between the North and the South of Britain, is quite simply stunning. A short report, written by the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG), detailed where money spent on transport services goes, region by region. PTEG, it should be noted, is best placed to do this review. It represents Britain's 6 Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs) in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire, as well as Nottingham City Council, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport and Transport for London. All 'provide, plan, procure and promote public transport' in their regions. Yet while PTEG is supposed to promote the interests of all of these member organisations, I don't think it will actually do this evenly. With the majority of these organisations in the north of the country and with TfL being a significant political force on its own that has the backing of the Mayor of London, it is unsurprising that PTEG favours the interests of their non-London members. This, I think, is why the '2010 PTEG Funding Gap report' came about.

Now for some statistics. Please don't go to sleep, they really do make interesting reading. Using data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) from 2008/2009, the report states that Londoners had, per head, £641 per year spent on them. However, those living in North West of Britain, had only a mere £287 spent on them each. Even worse luck befell those living in the North East, where the figure was only £234. This meant that Londoners had, per head of population, on average two and a half times more transport money spent on them than those living elsewhere in Britain. But it apparently gets worse. Of all money spent on transport in this country, 30% was spent in London which has only 15% of the entire population. Yet, the West Midlands, as an example, has 11% of the population and received only 9% of the transport budget. Further, PTEG present statistics that show that the recent disparity is part of a historical trend. Taking the comparison of London and the North and West Midlands, in 2004/05 the London spend per head was £533, whereas in the North and West Midlands it was £216. Skip forward to 2008/09 and the difference is that in London the figure was £641, whereas in the North and West Midlands it was £262. Awake? Right, let's move on.

What is good about the report is that there is no commentary or analysis, leaving that job to people like me. It would be easy for me to jump to conclusions about how unfair the spending difference between the north and south is, and I do think that there is an element of this. But at the end of the day my subjective view point is, however, playing a role in this judgement. The problem is that the statistics in the report actually tell us very little with regard to the issues surrounding public transport. The report measures the spending per head of population, but this is far too basic a measure that doesn't take into account a number of other factors.

My primary complaint is that it doesn't factor in how the services that the money pays for are used. The key statistic would not, therefore, be the number of individuals living in an area, but rather it would be the number of journeys made by public transport. Take for example two stations in roughly the same situations, Berrylands in South West London and Mossley Hill (shown) in Liverpool. Both are in densely populated suburban areas, and both have approximately four trains an hour. In 2005/2006 329,000 people passed through Berrylands station, however Mossley Hill only had 133,128 visit it (one of which was me). This would therefore mean that despite Berrylands being smaller and having fewer platforms (2 verses 4), the facilities would require more frequent maintenance because of higher ware and tare and the trains would need to be longer and at very least require more frequent cleaning. The costs incurred by the operator of Berrylands station would therefore be higher per user and per head of population.

Further, another complaint is that the report doesn't factor in that London's transport services move types of passengers that other British transport systems do not to the same degree. Firstly, the bulk of Britain's prosperity is now, very sadly, focussed on London. Taking figures of Gross Value Added to the economy in 2006, London comes out on top, adding £26,192 per capita. Other regions perform much worse, for example the West Midlands contributes £16,583 per capita and the North West £16,234. Therefore, in London transport links to and from the city, offices and businesses, need to be maintained at a high standard as they are vital to the economy.

Additionally, the majority of Britain's tourism is based in London. London is the world's most visited tourist location and in 2006 played host to 15,640,000 individuals. Manchester, where the second largest number of tourists visit sits at 73 in the world rankings as it only accommodated 912,000 people. Additionally, the top three British tourist attractions, The Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, are all London based, the next being the Roman Baths in Bath. Therefore, tourism would put greater strains on London's infrastructure and would need to provide more facilities for these customers.

Lastly, history that plays a role. Once the railways came to London, the city quickly developed a dense commuter belt. For example, the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), which had a dense suburban network, always derived above 72% of its revenue from passenger traffic. Further, in 1900 the average clerk in London could live at a distance from the city where it would be impractical to walk from, whereas in smaller cities, Manchester or Liverpool for example, he possibly could have made his way to work on foot. Further, because of the fact that there were more industrial workers in the north, than in the business-orientated south, there were fewer individuals that could afford to use public transport in an era when the cost was still rather high. Lastly, many of the railways that served the north, such as the London and North Western and Great Northern Railways, tended to focus on attracting freight as this generated more profit. Historically therefore your average railway historian would tend to see northern railways as 'freight railways' and many of the lines built in the dense industrial regions of the north, while having stations on them, were essentially constructed to facilitate this transport. London, therefore, has always been a city used to using public transport and has it far more ingrained in its woodwork. Public transport in London is therefore used more and has a greater role to play in keeping the city moving.

Overall it seems that the report is very flawed. Just saying that regions other than London receive less money is failing to address the differences in transport patterns and realities of transport in this nation. There needs to be more complex, more detailed and more intelligent figures gathered before spending on transport can be properly assessed.

But then again, with all this in mind, I do still feel that there is an underlying unfairness in the amount of transport funding between London and the regions. The counter argument, to all my points above, is simple. If not enough money is not spent on public transport outside of London, to develop, improve and add to the existing services , then people will not move onto the trains or buses. They are right. The question underlying this is what role do we want our transport systems to play in the future? Do we want them to just continue to service those existing patterns of usage, or do we want them to be an instrument of greener travel and economic growth? I will go with the latter option. I would argue that the challenge to public transport providers and the government, is to increase spending on public transport throughout the nation, so as to expand the opportunities for people to use it. In the quest to be a greener nation, to reduce congestion on our roads and to grow local economies, transport spending needs to increased so that getting on a train or bus anywhere in the country, is as pleasant an experience as it is in London. With the economic crisis we'll see what happens, but in truth, increased and more evenly distributed spending on public transport can be, and should be, a positive thing for all in stimulating economic recovery. Only by making transport spending fairer, will this happen throughout the nation.

Read the report HERE

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Three Station Masters at Hampton Court - The Odd Bunch

I have been always been interested in the lives of railway workers, and what has particularly peaked my interest are those individuals that worked at my local station, Hampton Court, in the Victorian period. Astoundingly, between 1849, when the station was built, and 1895, Hampton Court only had four station agents (later called station masters). The line, which came off the London to Southampton main line just past Kingston Station (now Surbiton), was built throughout 1848, and opened for traffic on the 1st February 1849. The London and South Western Railway had been interested in the tourist traffic going to the Hampton Court Palace since 1839. Therefore,those individuals that took up the position of station master is of interest as this was a prestige post.
The first Station Agent or Master was John Madigan. Like most of the staff based at Hampton Court in the period, Madigan was not from the local area. A minute of the Traffic and coaching committee of the 23rd February 1849 boasts that the company's three major projects at the time, the extension of the line from Nine Elms to Waterloo, the Windsor line and lastly the Hampton Court Branch were all 'manned without adding a single individual to the company's staff.' This indicates that Madigan had joined the railway at an earlier point. Indeed, Madigan had started as a clerk at Nine Elms in 1840, had been moved to Winchester in 1841, Botley in 1842 and Wareham in 1847.
But what of his background? On the 1851 census it shows that Madigan was from Ireland. He was 29 year old, meaning he was born in either 1822 or 23, was married, and was listed as living in the 'Corn House Building'. Having come from Ireland it is quite possible that Madigan had brought his young family over during the Irish Potato famine. Many of the Irish who came over to work on the railways during this period only took positions as navvies. However, Madigan's employment shows that as time progressed more immigrants went into the operational side of the railways taking on administrative jobs. The position of Station Agent was not as prestige as it became in the later Victorian period, yet for an Irish immigrant of only 29 years of age, running a station would have been quite an achievement. Madigan was moved to Windsor in September 1851 and the station agency was taken over by William P. Legh.
Like Madigan, Legh was not a local being born in Windsor in 1810. He was very well educated. In his notice of retirement in 1882 the South Western Gazette, the company's staff magazine, notes that he was at Eton and was a contemporary of the sitting Prime Minister at the time Gladstone. Legh obtained his first railway job when he entered the company as a clerk in the Stores Department at Nine Elms in 1847 . The formal process of job appointment was through a process of nepotism and he would have been nominated by one of the directors of the company. It is possible that his family knew some company directors, perhaps through an Eton contact.
As a well-educated clerk in the Traffic Department in 1847, Legh's promotion prospects were good, and he was quickly moved to the Booking Office at Nine Elms station. In 1848 he was made Station Agent at Adlestone Station, after which he moved in 1850 to Hounslow. In 1851 he was transferred to Hampton Court. The system of advancement on the London and South Western Railway was quite erratic and promotion was based on a number of factors, such as how good the employee was at their job and their degree of contacts within the company. Another possible explanation is that the Traffic Managers at the time, Mr Stovin up to 1852 and Mr Scott after, were actively trying to advance Legh. Employees of the company were not allowed to enter the company as station master at the time, and the majority of employees in the main were expected to work up from the bottom. Legh starts in a very cushy position as a Clerk in the stores department and rapidly worked his way through gradually more important stations. Thus, he may have been subject to further nepotism after his appointment. As a result in 1853 he became Assistant Superintendent at Waterloo.
This was short lived and in 1855, for an unknown reason, he was moved back to Hampton Court. He never married and lived in the station building until his retirement in 1882 at the age of 72. On his retirement he was on a wage of £110 a year, at the top end of the scale. He retired with a yearly allowance of £95 from the pension fund. He died on the 9th July 1883 and was buried in West Molesey Cemetery on the 12th July 1883. (Molesey is actually where the station is built and on the other side of the river from the Palace) The funeral was attended by Mr Chalwin the Goods Clerk, Mr Whittington the delivery agent, Inspector Nicholson of Waterloo Station and by the new station agent of Hampton Court, John McDougall. Clearly, Legh's appointment indicates that the position of Station Agent was gaining in prestige, as being appointed after an Irish immigrant, the ex-Eton student's posting suggests that the company wished to have an employee in the position of a higher social standing. It is, however, unusual for someone who had such impressive education to be placed in such a position, especially as the majority of station agents, when they first became clerks, would only have had basic elementary schooling.
I have found a lot more about Legh's successor, John McDougall. Once again McDougall did not come from Molesey, rather he was born in the Scottish Borders at Gordon near Kelso in 1831. He joined the railway company in 1860, becoming a porter at Waterloo in 1860. He started as a guard based at Hampton Court almost immediately after, and was appointed as an Inspector at the station in 1873. In the 1871 census he is recorded as being a married and living at 7 Creek Road, aged 40. In the 1881 census he is listed as living in Osborne Villa in Matham Road with his wife, Annie, his daughter Rosa, and two other railway employees. By this point however he was already reliving the ailing Legh of some of his administrative work, something that presumably precipitated his rise to the post of Station Master. In February 1880 The Locomotive committee paid McDougall £5 for filling in the Locomotive Department returns for a year. This he did for a number of years.
There is also evidence that McDougall was gaining the respect and profile of a Station Agent, and this is why he is one of the most unusual appointments to such a post that I have encountered for a long time. On two occasions, in April 1880 and in December 1881, the Traffic Committee of the L&SWR reported being petitioned at first by the residents of Molesey and then by the local board for him to be the next Station Agent. This was eventually confirmed on the 15th February 1882, when he was put on a wage of £95 per year. Most station masters had to start as junior clerks and work their way upwards. McDougall, however, was not a clerk and therefore was only advanced to agent on the basis of the love that the people of Molesey had for him. This is shown through a lot of evidence in the South Western Gazette.
It is obvious that McDougall was a popular, efficient and good natured station master. On two occasions McDougall organised charitable donations for worthy causes. In 1881 each station, including Hampton Court, had a donation box for employees at Christmas. He suggested that each member of the station staff should donate a small portion to the London and South Western Railway's Widows and Orphans fund. 10 shillings was given by 16 men. In February 1884 there was an accident at Nine Elms, the main goods depot of the railway, in which a member of staff lost both his feet. McDougall organised a collection for the injured man, raising 9s 3d. This was again from the Christmas box.
McDougall also received a good number of honours and accolades from both the travelling public and local residents. The most notable came from Baron Pawell Von Rammingen, and his wife HRH Princess Frederica Von Rammingen. They lived in the palace and were regular travellers. On December 26th 1881, while he was still and inspector, the Princess presented him with a 'massive gold scarf pin set with pearl and pale coral.' She also gave him £4 to be divided between the station staff. In May 1885 the Baron presented him with a gold horseshoe pin set with Pearls as a new years gift. The last present that I have found was given in 1890 when they presented McDougall with a gift of a cut glass inkstand with silver tap and silver tray. On it was inscribed, “Presented by HRH Princess Frederica and the Baron Pawell Von Rammingen to J. McDougall, Station Master, Hampton Court.”
It has already been shown how respected McDougall was around the town. However, another accolade came on the occasion of his 20 years at the station in 1885 when it was “thought by many of the travelling public that so long a term spent in one place fairly deserved some recognition.” As such a committee was formed by local residents including the Reverend W.F. Reynolds, Rear Admiral Wilson, Capt Lonsdale, Mr Evan McGregor C.B., and Messrs Fletcher, Kennedy, Payne, Keeling, Young-Adams and Garland. Mr Athelstan was honorary secretary. The goal was to invite subscriptions for a testimonial, and a circular that was issued stated their efforts were in recognition of McDougall's “invariable courtesy and attention to the travelling public in general and the residents in this vicinity in particular during the past 20 years.” The call for subscriptions was widely heeded and Rear-Admiral Wilson sent McDougall just over 40 guineas, which, accounting for inflation, would be be worth around £1700 today. At the end of the letter that accompanied the gift it stated that the contributors hoped that McDougall would 'enjoy health and strength to continue the performance of his duties with the same credit to himself and comfort to others.”
Yet there was one point at which the station master's character, integrity and good nature was attacked. In September 1888 McDougall was summoned to court by Edwin Elphick, a cab driver, for using 'abusive, threatening and insulting language, with an intent to create a breech of the peace in the station yard.' All the evidence was stacked against Elphick. McDougall had seen that Elphick was drunk and asked his boss Mr Bowery not send him into the yard. Yet the next day Elphick reappeared, at which point McDougall ordered him out of the cab yard. Elphick became abusive towards the station master. The judge ruled in favour of McDougall and the case was thrown out before the defence could call any witnesses.
Towards the end of 1894 McDougall's health started to fail him. A Traffic Committee Minute of 23rd of February 1895 stated that at 64 years of age, and at the top of his pay scale of £110, he wished to retire as he had been certified permanently incapacitated. He was retired on the 1st February and was replaced by Mr F. Molyneaux, formally agent at Sunningdale.
The station masters at Hampton Court were probably the most unusual group of people to occupy the position of station agent at one location. An Irish immigrant, an Eton-educated man and an member of the Traffic Department's non-clerical staff, were three groups of people that were all very unlikely to be appointed to such posts. It is, therefore, unusual that an example of each were all located in the same place. Hampton Court doesn't therefore represent employment patterns typically found elsewhere in the company and makes an interesting case-study.
PLEASE NOTE: This is something I wrote 4 years ago. It was copied and pasted from a talk script I knocked up at the time, as being knocked off my pedal bike has rendered my left hand unable to type.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Conservative transport policy...time to be scared?

I have been thinking a lot about the new Conservative Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond. As someone interested in having better railways in Britain, I instinctively worry about Conservative Governments. They have in the past been about as useful as a bacon slicer in a cheese shop; it may do something, but ultimately you'll end up gooey and with half your finger sliced off.

This fear isn't irrational though. It doesn't automatically stem from a loathing of all things Tory, (however I do have to confess that as a disgruntled Lib-Dem I am quick to condemn them) nor does it come from a default loathing of the fee market, which history tells us they love, cuddle and, given the chance, would have coitus with. It doesn't even originate from erroneous idea that since the beginning the Conservatives have always historically been the ones to mess up the railways. Indeed, some of the greatest policy errors, including the Railway and Canal Traffic Act of 1894 and parts of the Railways Act of 1921, both of which restricted the way that railway companies could charge for their services and therefore damaged their profits, were both enacted by Liberal governments.

My worry, profuse in nature and massive in my head, is that over the last 50 years Conservative Governments have persistently damaged Britain's rail network. Now, I'm not saying that that's what Conservative Governments set out to do, but I can't help discerning a pattern of destructive policies and loathing towards the railways that was ongoing. It is my hope, however, that the new Conservative-Lib Dem Government doesn't go the same way.

The first real pain that the Conservatives inflicted on Britain's railways was installing one Richard Beeching as chairman of British Railways (BR) in 1961. He was appointed by Ernest Marples (shown), the Conservative Minister for Transport, who brought him from his position as Technical Director at ICI. It is in his new position that Beeching came to be considered a 'Railway Satan.' He was tasked with moving BR into profitability. He shared the view with the Government that BR should be run like a business and not solely in the public interest. In his 1963 report, The Reshaping of British Railways, he proposed closing 6000 of the country's 18000 miles of railway, most of which were rural and cross country lines. This would also mean shutting 7000 stations and allow BR to shed 70,000 jobs over three years. He estimated the recommended changes would make BR profitable by 1970 and as a result Marples implemented most of them.

The Beeching Report, as we now know, was terrible for many reasons. Firstly the report did not take into account the social benefits of railway lines serving communities that had no other transport links. These small communities, that still shape our view of the sleepy little English village, had existences that revolved around their railway lines. Suddenly, like a whirlwind, these services were gone. Secondly, Beeching's cuts were based on traffic figures that were gathered in the spring when some places that had heavy tourist traffic were at their quietest, such as lines on the North Cornwall coast. Therefore when these lines were closed it destroyed industry and tourism in these regions. North Cornwall, to this day, still has a failing economy. Thirdly, there was no attempt to decrease cost through other means, such as modernisation, (despite the failed BR modernisation plan of the 1950s) that would have allowed some lines to stay open. Beeching's sole cost-cutting policy was to apply the axe when a line failed to pay its way. Lastly, the cuts went too far. The plans did not foresee that roads would fill up and did not anticipate any future transport needs. These are just some of the many criticisms of the plan, and in the end Beeching's goal of profitability was never reached. What it most certainly did do was cost many people their livelihoods.

Now I am not automatically going to knock Beeching himself and I have always though that it was Marples particularly that was at fault. Firstly, Marples was a man who's background looked a bit suspect. Marples co-owned a construction company, Marples-Ridgeway, that was heavily into road building. Indeed, surprise, surprise, it was Marples that authorised the M1 be built from London to Nottingham and it was Marples-Ridgeway that built it. Further, and this is important, Beeching only made recommendations in his report, it was Marples who actually gave the order to close the lines. Therefore, when the line between London and Nottingham closed, forcing travellers onto the M1, the fishiness is plain to smell. Marples evidently used his position, and the Beeching report, to further his own business interests. Secondly, Marples brought in a businessmen in Beeching and that in itself was going to mean harsh cuts were going to be proposed. My point is that if you place a wolf in a chicken coup, don't expect that it'll imitate the chickens. Businessmen will act as businessmen if they are simply told to make something profitable. Indeed, it was Beeching's narrow terms of reference, simply to bring BR into profit, that meant he looked at things simply in terms of profit and loss. Thus, he acted accordingly. Overall I feel that it was Marples who was the man to blame for the cuts, as he was driven by a pro-road agenda. Beeching, I feel, simply did his job, even if he did it badly.

So where to next? Oh yes, the privatisation of British Rail in the early to mid 1990s. This is, in some ways, a more erroneous action by a Conservative Government that the Beeching cuts. Beeching, effigies of which railway enthusiasts still stick pins into, at least was brought in to solve a specific problem. British Railways was unprofitable, its cost tax payers money, Beeching was tasked with reversing this. However, John Major's Government of the 1990s broke up British Rail because of ideology. The free market was their God, and they worshipped it to the max. Their goal was to make Britain's railways efficient and innovative by the introduction of competition. Silly arses.

By the early 1990s British Rail was actually running very efficiently. Maggie, bless her cotton socks, had restricted BR's budget quite considerably. This had had the effect of scaring its bosses so much that the aim of Beeching, railway profitability, actually became a reality in some parts of the organisation. Certain services, such as intercity and Network South East, actually started to make money. The Thatcher Government also shocked everyone when it authorised the electrification of the East Coast Main Line and purchased new rolling stock. Everyone involved stood back and applauded. BR was, by 1994, at its most cost-effective. Then Thatcher was out and Major came in.

Thatcher, it may surprise everyone to know, was actually against the privatisation of the railways. However, Major, under the influence of the 'Adam Smith think tank,' pushed forward with privatisation in the Railways Act 1993. This created an infrastructure company, Railtrack, that maintained all the working parts (track, signals, major stations etc.), three ROSCOs that owned the rolling stock and who leased it to the 25 Train Operating Companies (TOCs) who actually ran the trains. Further, BR's engineering department was split up, as was the freight services that were now under the control of 6 private companies. This is the very basic version of how BR was split up. To go through the number of companies that were involved and the cack-handed way that BR was destroyed, would take endless Blog posts that would make me into a hermit.

The split up of BR caused many problems, and what follows were the key ones. Firstly, the track ownership was separated from the trains. This currently causes problems as there are conflicts between the operators of trains and the Network Rail. Secondly, the infrastructure maintenance was privatised , leading to cost cutting, sloppy maintenance and a string of crashes. The Southall accident in 1997, Ladbroke Grove in 1999 and Hatfield in 2000 all contributed to Railtrack's downfall. In 2001 it was placed in administration and in 2002 all of its assets were transferred to the state owned, not-for-profit company, Network Rail. Thirdly, the railways now cost the taxpayer far more money than is necessary. Because in the privatisation process someone forgot to flag up that railways don't make profit, it means that many franchises, such as South West Trains and National Express East Anglia are subsidised simply so that they have profits high enough to pay their shareholders dividends. Yet at the same time many Train Operating Companies still have to pay money back to the government as part of their contracts, and failure to do so sees them stripped of their franchises, for example National Express East Coast last year. Overall, these weird arrangements mean that we pay over the odds as taxpayers for the train services. In 1994 government funding for BR was £1,627m, approximately £2,168m in 2005 terms. In 2005 government support came to £4,593m. I could list more faults, but the general consensus is that a Conservative Government privatised the railways very badly, when they were at their most cost-effective, simply because it sat well with their ideology.

What, therefore, does the future hold with this government? Are those who, like me, are interested in having good railways quaking in their boots? Railway commentators were shocked and worried last week when the new Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond (shown), laid out a possible change in direction for the Department for Transport. I wrote a few Blogs back about how I felt that Lord Adonis was probably the best Secretary of State for the railways in a long while, and how his enthusiasm for railways should be continued. However, Hammond was quoted last week as saying that Labour's "war on the motorist" was going to be ended. Is there a war? I didn't hear gunfire. All I heard were Clarksonesque individuals who like to feel victimised mouthing off. Hammond was referring to an illusory conflict and it was a worrying portent. I read this statement as meaning the new government was taking a pro-roads stance and could hear Marples' footsteps in the background. If he was going to view transport policy through a prism of pro or anti different forms of transport then he was simplifying a complex issue.

As I speak the Government's 'Programme for Government' is being unrolled through the news outlets. In the transport section there is a lot of good news for those interested in better railways. There will be longer franchises, Network Rail will be more accountable to it customers (i.e. us), high speed rail is supported, with options to expand it beyond the basic plans already drawn up, there is support for Crossrail, support for electrification (which I honestly didn't think would still be on the cardsunder the new Government), the rail regulator will become a strong passenger champion and, lastly, there is a commitment to fair rail pricing. Some things have been left out, such as improvements to Thameslink, re-opening closed lines and the Intercity Express Program. However this plan for the next 5 years is, on the surface of things, a very good result for the railways given the financial constraints of government.

History has taught me to fear Conservative transport policies when it comes to the railways, that they are essentially a destructive party in this respect. Therefore, naturally, I suspect that many of the above policies have the Lib Dem's fingerprints all over them. Yet if the Government adheres in the next 5 years to what it has set out today, then I might start to change my opinion. I wait and see...

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Early Railway Administrators...The Good, the Bad and the Shiny

Early railways were run by people who nothing about them and were learning the ropes. Railway managers and directors faced a range of challenges that had never been taken on anyone. There was no idea what form of signalling to adopt, who was the best man to promote into a position, or even what the best form of coke to burn was (and no I'm not talking diet or regular). Therefore without established ideas about how to manage large and complex organisations, and with few blueprints showing how to move Ethel the sheep or even Mrs Ethel Flaptyback, from point A to B, the railways employed a motley crew of individuals from many employment backgrounds. It is, therefore, not surprising that the concept of a 'railway-worker' cannot really be considered to have been firmly established until, at least the mid-1850s. In this Blog entry I will look at some of the early administrators of British railway companies and show that there were some interesting individuals that took positions as either 'managers' or 'superintendents.'

So lets start at the bottom. The best place to start if you ask me, just ask any builder. Firstly we have to ask a question, who was the early nineteenth century clerk? Anderson argued in the 1970s that clerks in this period were 'superior to most workers.'1 Attwell agreed, saying that because of their skills in 'literacy, arithmetic up to vulgar and decimal fractions,' they 'stood above the manual worker,'2 even if their skills by modern standards were pretty poor. Railway managers and directors therefore looked to this group to be some of the first railway administrators.

If you had gone to your local station in 1845 it would not be run by a station master. It would be managed by the 'Station Clerk.' London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) rule books throughout the 1840s consistently refer to the administrators of stations by this title. By the early 1850s the company had, however, phased the title out and replaced it with 'station agent.' This said, the move does not seem to have been universal. A search of nineteenth century newspapers shows that it may have still around as late as the 1860s. Generally, clerks were chosen to manage stations simply because there was no one else available in the labour market. However in some sense, while the clerks were of good standing, their clerical status held them back, in that they did not have the social status to be appointed as managers. Overall,what the title represents is the fact that the concept of to directors they were simply clerks, with some responsibilities, sited at stations. They were filling clerical roles akin to those in other industries that weren't unique to the railways.

Next I will look upwards at management. I tend to think that directors split their organisations along a distinct fault line. There were those 'bright sparks' who were engineers, that managed the technical parts of the organisation, such as the building of the lines and the running of trains. On the other hand there were the hotch-potch of individuals that ran companies' traffic departments, that did not have any technical experience or training, but that brought experience from other industries.

Firstly, I will look at the engineers who were involved in the management of early railways. On the London and South Western Railway (and what a surprise I am focussing on it again) the Way and Works Department was managed by two men between 1836 and 1850. These were Albinus, 'I'm bloody difficult to find information on,' Martin, and Joseph, 'I'm in history I'm like a supernova,' Locke (shown). Both men had their separate remits. Locke managed the line while under construction and Martin managed engineering work after everything was completed. Locke also managed the Locomotive department. He initially, in 1838, devolved control of the department to Joseph Woods, who was one of his employees. Woods was succeeded in 1841 by John Viret Gooch, also an employee of Locke. Gooch's assistant and successor in 1850, was William Beattie, who was, surprisingly, also an employee of Locke (yes, that is sarcasm – can you smell patronage?). What these appointments show is that engineers naturally had charge of engineering functions within railway companies. What, however, is different from the railway industry later on and is important to note, is that engineers were initially the most important managers within a company. This was because the building and operation of a railway line were the first concerns of the directors and this meant engineers had were amongst the company's first employees to be appointed.

Indeed, there is evidence that engineers status' were so high that some were considered better as superintendents of railway companies overall, being given charge of the whole of a company's operations. Indeed in 1845 Martin, who already had the position of Superintendent of the Line on the L&SWR, became General Superintendent taking control of the 'whole concern'. His tenure was short-lived, lasting until 1850 when he left. Further to this, in Bonavia's history of railway organisation from 1971 he states that in G.P. Neele's 1904 book, Railway Reminiscences, listed of the railway industry's top managers in September 1847. Engineers featured in the list were I.K. Brunel (what a surprise) and John Hawkshaw (who?).3 Overall I think that early railway company directors may have perceived that engineers' higher education automatically provided with them with the brain-power to manage a whole railway.

But then again it wasn't engineers who took up most of the high-ranking posts. In the 1830s and 40s, when the majority of businesses were small family firms, directors who had no blueprint of railway organisation would naturally look to employ individuals who had come from the only organisations that routinely administered vast numbers of resources and employees. That said, if you had been press-ganged, can you really be called an employee? Yes, I'm of course talking about the armed forces. Thus, a lot of Traffic and General Managers in the early railway industry had, at some point, worn uniform. Terry Gourvish studied Captain Mark Huish who was general manager of the L&NWR between 1846 and 1858 and who had served in India.4 Bonavia also noted Captain Eborall of the London and Birmingham Railway, Captain Laws and Binstead of Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and Captian Coddington of the Caledonian Railway.5 Military men were everywhere, filling the administrative ranks of railway companies. This said, there has been no study on how many were actually employed. Their influence is, however, plain to see. Why else would administrators, industry-wide and at all levels of company hierarchies, start to be called 'officers'? Why else would companies adopt draconian, military style rules and regulations? Military men clearly transferred many on the concepts that they learned in the forces to the railways.

Lastly, there were other managers, that Bonavia ignored, that came from 'like' industries such as stagecoaches or canals. I tend to think that they possibly made up a considerable portion of railways' early administrative staff, and they were potentially more numerous than military men. I suppose we know less about them as they were not very glamorous. After all, soldiers have swords, shiny bits and MASSIVE egos (well sometimes). One example of ex-manager from a 'like' industry working on an early British railway springs to mind. Let us go back to the South Western from which I will tell you a tale.

In 1852 Cornelius Stovin, the L&SWR's Traffic Manager, absconded to Canada with quite a bit of cash. I have always felt that the directors of the L&SWR must have been a little dim when appointing him. From a bit of detective work I think I have established Stovin's employment history which reveals that before he joined the L&SWR he had a shady past. On the 1851 census Stovin is listed as having been born in Birmingham. Stovin was appointed to the post of Traffic Manager on the 23rd February 1839 accepting the post on the 28th . Interestingly, his acceptance reached the company only days after a Cornelius Stovin, a stagecoach proprietor, was declared bankrupt in Birmingham. Given the unusual nature of the name and the geographical link, it is not unreasonable to presume this was the same person. Given that he got the job I also think it is not unreasonable to presume the L&SWR directors were a bit dim and should have done their homework. While this is an interesting tale, it shows that individuals who had worked in similar industries, that transported goods and people, did work in the early railway industry. This said, we know even less about them than the military men and it is again an area of research that needs further work.

Who was an early railway manager is something that I am keen to research further in my career. From this brief survey of the available evidence it is clear that directors employed individuals as managers who had worked in a mixed-bag of industries and came from many walks of life. No one knew how to manage a railway in the early days and this policy was the only option open to directors because there were no 'career railwaymen' in the labour market. It would take at least until the 1860 for the railway professional, who would spend their entire career in the railway industry, to really become established. But that is a topic for another post...

1Anderson, Geoffrey, Victorian Clerks, (Manchester, 1976), p.129

2Attwell, Paul, 'The Clerk Deskilled: A Study in False Nostalgia,' Journal of Historical Sociology (1989) Vol.2 No.4 pp.370

3Bonavia, Michael R., The Organisation of British Railways, (Shepperton, 1971) p.13

4Gourvish, T.R., Mark Huish and the London & North Western Railway: A Study of Management, (Leicester, 1972)

5Bonavia, Michael R., The Organisation of British Railways, (Shepperton, 1971) p.13

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Goodbye Lord Adonis...You'll be missed

What will happen to the railways of this nation in the next five years? I don't know, who knows? The media certainly didn't talk about it throughout the election campaign. I think this is principally as one of the most expensive additions to the British railway network, the new high speed line to the north of the county, High Speed 2, was debated by the parties before the election date was even announced. Further, because the three major parties broadly agreed on how this line would be built there was no real need to highlight the small differences in each of their approaches. This said at an estimated cost of around 34 billion, 14 billion more than the Trident renewal cost, you'd think it'd at least be mentioned...once. (Ok, it probably was, I just must have missed it)While I am in no way a Labour supporter, one of my main irritations about the fact they are now out of government is that Lord Adonis, probably the man in the country who least lives up to his name, will have left the Department of Transport (DofT). I think that at the moment it is a shame he will not go down in British political history for his work at the DofT. Every time I hear his name mentioned on the news it is to regale us with tales of how he was one of the members of the Labour party negotiating team that tried establish a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition, against the wishes of many in his party. This is, unfortunately, not what he should really be remembered for. After all, he was only trying to keep his party in power. What's more, it is likley that he will also be remembered as the man who erroneously grounded everyone under an ash-cloud when the Icelandic volcano blew its top. Again this is not really something he should be remembered for.

What Adonis should be remembered for is the many policies that he enacted and drove forward to improve this country's rail network. He took office as Minister for Transport in October 2008 under Geoff Hoon, and succeeded him as Secretary of State in June 2009. Hoon was pro-plane and pro-car in his approach, but largely ineffective. Yet Adonis felt that the 'green' transport policies were the future, and as such railways took centre stage. As such, Christian Wolmar stated in Rail Magazine that 'the new Transport Secretary has effected a complete revolution in the government’s handling of the railways.' (RAIL No. 624, August 11th 2009)

Firstly, and it has already been mentioned, he was the man that got the plans for building a new High Speed Line to the north off the ground. This was after years of political indecision and having the proposal firmly locked away in a filing cabinet. On Adonis' advice, the Government set up the the High Speed Two Ltd company in February in 2009 to look into the viability of the project. Adonis therefore brought the issue to the forefront of politics and this had the effect of forcing the other two major parties into developing their own policies regarding a high speed line. Subsequently, there was universal consensus in the election manifestos that the development of High Speed 2 is now an economic, social and environmental necessity. Therefore there is now a real hope that building work will start in the next parliament (even if the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives do disagree on the finer details). This said, the sad thing is that if it does succeed Adonis won't be at the helm to take any credit for getting this gargantuan project off the ground.

Further, Adonis set out in July 2009 a Government plan to electrify important lines that still are dependent on diesel traction. These included the Great Western main line to South Wales and the Liverpool to Manchester route. This would electrify 300 miles of railway, would give faster journey times, and provide travellers with a more pleasant journey. This last part is particularly relevant to me. Having recently completed two journeys on the Great Western mainlLine I can say that the juddery, jiggery and jumpy service was more than a little irritating at times, especially when trying to consume hot tea. While the plans were given a very negative reception in the mainstream media, the railway media and franchise holders for once had the same opinion, and applauded the vision that Adonis had shown. However, I think the electrification plans are less likely to be undertaken by the incoming government. It was a proposal that came from Adonis and his team, and not from business or the travellers. Therefore with him gone, electrification probably won't see the light of day for a long time. In addition, while relatively cheap compared to HS2 at 1.1 billion pounds, it was only projected to break even after 40 years. With a massive debt the Government are highly likely to side-line it based on this projection.

The last area where the loss of Adonis will be felt is in his support for the travelling public. He demonstrated frequently that for him the traveller came first. Mainly this ethos was expressed through the DofT's increasing influence over the companies running the franchises. Yes, Adonis was accused of micromanagement, but there are a number of cases where this was of very large benefit to the customers. Additionally, there were none that come to mind where it was not. Firstly, he beat South West Trains up (something that I am never unhappy about) regarding their plans to close ticket offices, reversing the decision. Secondly, as National Express East Coast's own money worries were beginning to hit the quality of the service, he told them that their game was up and stripped them of their franchise. As a result we now have the Government running East Coast as a not-for-profit company. I certainly have no complaints and to my mind the service has improved. Lastly, he conducted a rail tour round the country experiencing the delights of the British rail network. The joy at the end of it was that he complained about the fare prices and gave an ear-full to the Train Operating Companies (TOC). This was a man who frequently supported the rail user over the TOC's lust for profit.

There were of course mistakes, and the Intercity Express Programme (IEP) springs to mind. This was a project to replace all of Britain's ageing high speed trains, some of which are nearly 35 years old, at a cost of 7.5 billion. Yet, the plan was correctly put on hold in February this year after £20 million had been spent. The project's value for money was to be reviewed given the financial crisis. Yet, as I have stated before in my blog, it was better to spend 20 million erroneously, than waste 7.5 billion. I suspect, given the fact that Labour dropped the plan in February, that this project will not be revived. This is one case where I won't complain and for various reasons I am happy to see the back of it.

As I write there is no Secretary of State for Transport, the new government hasn't appointed one. Lord Adonis was a man who could see into the future. He envisioned a Britain where people used trains more than cars, where rail transportation was clean and comfortable, and where the rights of the rail user were above those of those of the TOCs. He saw that long-term rail policy is not something that interests a great many people, that the rail user is essentially concerned with those aspects of travel that confront them from day to day, such as fares, open ticket offices and quality of service. He addressed these things, yet at the same time realised that their were bigger issues that needed attention to make the railway industry a success, such as long term strategy, funding and the environment. He realised that the media and the public would not demand these changes, rather that the big initiatives needed to come from his office, from his mind. Therefore this is why I feel that in the last year and a half Britain probably had its best Secretary of State For Transport in a very long time (well, as far as the railways go). It is just a shame that his tenure is now cut short.

What, therefore, are the priorities for the new Secretary of State for Transport regarding Britain's railways? The important things are having vision and the protection of the interests of the traveller. It is not good enough for the new Secretary of State to simply accept the 'way things are.' He or she needs to push to make Britain's railways the best they can with ideas, confidence and having the railway user always in mind. Adonis' momentum needs to be continued, but I suspect it will not as it will be hard to better this exceptional Secretary of State for Transport. Goodbye Lord Adonis.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Sub-First Class on First Great Western

I start writing this Blog entry on the 16.30 train from Gloucester to London Paddington, two minutes after leaving Gloucester. The train is 21 minutes late, however I do have the joy of being in First Class, something that I was more than looking forward to. It is, in my life, a new travelling experience. I have only travelled First Class once before. Through a fluke of ticketing four years ago I had the joy of going to York via GNER's First Class service. My, what a service that was. While in GNER's First Class carriages I actually felt like I was a special traveller, like I was a cut above those in the standard class carriages.

When booking tickets to see my friends Jack and Katie in Cheltenham another quirk on the National Rail Enquiries ticketing website was that First Class would cost me only £5 extra each way. So, as I was on holiday, I thought I would pay the extra and enjoy those luxuries that my memory reminded me were part of the First Class experience. The only downside was that I would on the way back have to get a rail replacement bus service from Cheltenham to Gloucester because of engineering works. This was thankfully avoided by Jack driving me in a car. So here I sit (currently at Stroud – a beautiful building) in First Class on the return service. I have to be honest that First Great Western's version of First Class is so far below GNER's of four years ago (and which I hope has continued under the current operators of the franchise, East Coast), that I am thinking about writing a letter in aid of the common good. .

Firstly, and this is just happening as I write, the Buffet car is not open because of staff shortages. So, evidently I won't be getting my complimentary cup of tea and/or coffee. Now I don't know whether I have any rights in this regard, but I was under the impression that if you sell a service at higher cost based on a range of perks and then fail to deliver, then this would constitute a breech of the trade's descriptions act. I mean the complementary drinks are there, plain to see, on FGW's website. They hope (although the member of the train crew who made the announcement seemed unsure) that some staff will join them at Swindon to open the buffet and operate a trolley. In all honestly I doubt this'll happen (it didn't by the way). That's no great loss though, the tea service wasn't up to much on the way in

On the GNER service there were cups and saucers on the table, a staff member with tea and coffee pots to pour on demand, and real milk in a small jug on every table. I think I replenished my tea three or four times...I consumed to the maximum and it was bliss.

This is a lot for FGW to live up to. All I can say is “Oh dear.” In no world, in no parallel universe, in no moment of time, is a card cup, lukewarm water and UHT milk 'first class.' This was bad tea. Now I know I may be being picky as the tea was free, but in a way that is not the point. Running a First Class service isn't just about giving away free items that I'd have to pay for as a standard class traveller. First Class travel is about being provided with a service that is better than that I'd get in standard class. I have paid extra money to avoid those slightly rough-and-ready aspects of standard class. But what about the other services that I have supposed to have paid for? How did they manifest themselves on my journey?

Well, on my inward journey I got the impression that one newspaper was divvied out amongst six people and now, on the way out, where is it? Is this a mythical newspaper? As far as I can see, throughout the carriage, there are no newspapers on tables. In fact come to think of it I haven't seen any staff yet. At least on GNER the newspapers were there waiting for you and there was one per customer. Indeed if, as I witnessed at one point, the paper was missing, you could go to the buffet bar and get one. This strikes me again miss-selling a service. Again it is only a small point in the grand scheme of things, but my complaint is that I have paid extra money for a degree of service that I simply haven't been receiving. Is this because FGW staff simply forgot? Is this because FGW are being cheap? I can't tell you, but I am a disgruntled consumer and at this point I don't care.

I suppose I can't slate every aspect of FGW's First Class service. I have a big, comfortable seat that reclines. However my slight complaint with it is that the arm-rests are a bit tacky, simply being made out of very hard plastic. But let me try and be positive, I have a lovely table. I can't really say much about it, except that, and this won't surprise you at this point, the plug socket doesn't work. I have just mentioned this to the ticket inspector. It seems he can't do anything about it and mumbled something about the fuse coming out. It's lucky on this occasion that I have a long-lasting battery on my computer. However, again this a case having been sold an advertised service (on the website is says there is a plug socket on every table) that I am not receiving.

I am now at Swindon, the home of the Great Western Railway. I have to be honest that if the company's managers of 100 years ago could see how their successors run their First Class service, they would be horrified. My conclusion is this; don't buy First Class tickets from First Great Western. I feel that it is a waste of money. Maybe I am being old-fashioned. Maybe my GNER experience set my expectations abnormally high. Now as I only paid £5 extra for the pleasure of sitting in First Class on each journey I can't really complain. I have received some services, mainly on the way out, that were approximately equatable to that value. Yet if I was someone who hadn't been fortunate in getting a good deal when booking, if I had paid an extra £20 or even £30 pounds as a treat perhaps, I would be very disappointed with a service which in my opinion was simply standard class with a few add-ons. Having a First Class service is not just about hand-outs, better seats and a bit more space, it is about a superior travelling experience. If it isn't, then it should just be named 'Standard Class+.' Sorry First Great Western it's simply not good enough and you will be receiving a letter soon...

NOTE: This was posted when I got home

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The pies that Viscount Pirrie had his fingers in

Well we've all heard in the newspapers haven't we. The director of company 'A,' lets call him 'Bob,' was involved with another company, the imaginatively named company 'B', and used his influence to secure contracts for company 'A' with company 'B.' More often we hear of these slightly dodgy associations through replacing company 'A' with the word 'Government,' but the principal is roughly the same. In short, what I am talking about are nefarious arrangements between businesses and institutions brokered by individuals who have a stake in both. For that individual, when the sordid details come out, they just look bad, their faces are emblazoned across the tabloids, their names writ-large in the banner headline.

But this is not a new phenomenon and my work on the directors of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) has exposed the links between the directors of that company and external organisations. I have pieced together the history of L&SWR directorship in part through the Directory of Directors (DoD), a publication that from 1880 told the casual reader who, exactly sat on what company boards. So if Lord Geoffrey Munkton-Spitalton-Poo sat on the the board of the Walton-on-Thames Dog Food and Cannery Co., as well as the company that supplied the dogs for the food, it'd be in there. I just hope someday, someone, is going to sit down and like a massive spider work out exactly all these directorial webs, it'd be well sticky and catch many flies. For now, however, we're just going to have to put up with my little study of the other interests of the directors of the L&SWR. I want to highlight one part of my study in this blog.

In 1880, when the DoD was first published, the directors of the L&SWR seem quite a boring, uninteresting bunch. Of the 12 individuals, only 3 had other directorships. That meant that 9 of them simply turned up every fortnight to the L&SWR committee and board meetings and spent the rest of the time supping Cognac and beating the local peasantry (oh, and there were quite a few gentry in there also if you didn't get the stereotype). Of the three that had other financial interests, firstly, Serjeant Gaselee, (yes that is his name and I have always wondered if he did a lot of marching) was a director of the London and Provincial Law Assurance Society. We can surmise that because he was in insurance, he was therefore evil. Arthur Govett, whose name I can't make fun of, was a director of the quaintly named Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Railway Co., a company so insignificant it doesn't even warrant its own Wikipedia entry. Lastly, Captain James Gilbert Johnson, who I am sure did do some marching, was a director of the South Indian Railway Company and the Southampton Dock Company (SDC). The latter, as we will see is the crux of our story. However what can be said of the South Western Board members of the 1880s is that there were no tangible links at board level between the L&SWR's business and external companies. Boy, would that change.

You see the Southampton Dock Company in the 1880s, was, as companies go, pretty crap. Originally in 1831 the London and Southampton Railway, that would become the L&SWR, was promoted with the docks as part of it. This was quickly dropped and the Docks Company was set up independently. Unfortunately for the SDC a chronic lack of investment in the second half of the nineteenth century meant that by the 1880s the biggest boat you would be likely to see docked there would be little Tommy Burton's toy replica of the H.M.S Victory. So the L&SWR in 1885 stumped up some cash to help the company get a large, modern, dock built. The provisos were that four L&SWR directors would be on the Dock Company Board and the SDC had to use the L&SWR's engineer for the work. This effectively made the Dock Company into a vassal state of the railway company. The problem was that the L&SWR didn't give the SDC enough cash to finish the job. So when in 1890 the new dock was opened it was missing small things that you might need there, you know, things like cranes. The upshot was that in 1892 the L&SWR directors decided to buy the SDC, they finished the docks, fell in the dock and climbed out again (OK I made the last part up). This was a sensible course of action for the L&SWR. If the SDC had have gone under, and yes I will unashamedly use shipping metaphors, it would have meant that much of the L&SWR's goods traffic, that came through Southampton, would sail to other ports and complete their onward journeys via other railway companies. Therefore the L&SWR had to buy the SDC to save their own skin. After the purchase the L&SWR invested and expanded the docks precipitating a very large increase in the trade moving through the port, and making Southampton one of Britain's major trading centres.

So this is the state of play in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Now, if you are a wandering shipping magnate, wandering around, then you'd say getting a 'piece of that action' of a company with an expanding dock and increasing trade, would be a good thing. One such magnate was the Right Honourable Lord William Pirrie, 1st Viscount Pirrie (shown).

Pirrie had been born on the 31st May 1847 in Quebec, Canada, however his parents had brought him back to Colnig, County Down, when he was two. He went to school at the Royal Belfast Academical institution and in 1862 became a gentlemen apprentice at the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff (H&W). He would stay with the company all his life and would make partner in 1874, becoming its chairman on the death of Sir Edward Harland in 1895. Now looking at the myriad of directorships he held in 1907 it would seem that Pirrie was a man with little time on his hands to attend all the board meetings. I'm going to list them because the energy of the man must have been amazing. In alphabetical order they are:- African Steam Ship Co, British and Atlantic Steam Navigation Co, Eastern Telegraph Co, Frederick Leyland and Co, International Merchantile Marine Co. of New Jersey, London City and Midland Bank, Mississippi And Dominion Steam Ship Co, Ocean Transport Co, Oceanic Steam Navigation Co, Scottish Widows' Fund Life Assurance Soc and Wilsons and Furness-Leyland Line Ltd. Oh, and don't forget H&W. In short, he must have been run ragged.

On the death of Arthur Govett, he of quaint railways and director of the L&SWR, Pirrie was elected to replace him on the board. This therefore created a link between the L&SWR, the Docks at Southampton and the Shipping magnate's various concerns. Now I am not sure as to whether the L&SWR approached Pirrie, or the other way round, however the appointment must have been attractive to all involved. The South Western had access to an influential figure in the board rooms of one of Britain's biggest shipbuilders and also of many shipping lines. This therefore had the potential to bring trade to the Docks and the L&SWR, and make it a heck of a lot of money. It also brought Pirrie's experience in shipbuilding to the company, as the L&SWR had its own Steam Packet services operating, and in the years after 1907 it had built a number of new ships. The benefits for Pirrie were that those shipping companies he was involved in may have got preferential rates for docking at Southampton from the L&SWR. Further, when the L&SWR came to build ships, H&W may have received the contracts, making that company substantial sums.

Another point of interest was that Pirrie was involved in the Oceanic Steam Navigation Co, a company that also went by the name of the White Star Line. You may have heard of them as they owned a little vessel called the Titanic, you know, the one that came off worse than the iceberg in 1912. The White Star Line operated a considerable numbers of ships out of the South Western's Southampton Docks, as well as had all its ships built by H&W. In addition the White Star Line completed in 1911 its own docks at Southampton, with rail links to the South Western and attachments to their dock infrastructure. This is from where the Titanic sailed, and then promptly sank. Many of the first class passengers that sailed on the Titanic, were brought to Southampton by the L&SWR, and all of them stayed before they sailed in the very high class, caviare supplying, gold plated, South Western Hotel (owned by the L&SWR), just outside the dock complex. This hotel had long been the home of the high-class passenger waiting to depart from Southampton. These arrangements therefore would have benifitted both the White Star Line and the L&SWR.

Therefore, it is clear that, Pirrie had his fingers in many interlocking pies, a bit like a strudel. It is quite clear that he was the linchpin of a network that existed between transport, shipping and shipbuilding concerns. These links between them were clearly important to the companies involved as he brought bringing his expertise and influence, like a business octopus, to each. At the same time he personally would have befitted as the network increased his own wealth and the wealth of his main company, H&W. He wouldn't have chosen directorships by 'fancy,' and clearly he strategically placed himself so as to benefit himself and his companies to the maximum effect. There is however a large gap of information. At the current time we do not know to what extent his network connections played in shaping the different companies' policies, cooperative arrangements and investments. There is still much work to be done on the interlocking agreements and arrangements between companies. This, then, is what I hope to do in my work, a daunting task to be sure.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The South West Oyster Fiasco

South West Trains, my local Train Operating Company (TOC), dumbfounds me a lot of the time. Some of the things it does, some of the ways it works, strike me as silly. Many of its actions just serve to heighten my suspicion that the only thing that motivates its management is to line the pockets of its owners' shareholders. This said, at times it does incompetent and costly things that beggar belief, that explain why it probably needs to milk the franchise for all it is worth. The best demonstration of this is in its attitude to the Oyster Card which from the 1st January could be used on all its services in the 6 zones that Transport for London (TfL) cover.

For those of you who are unaware of the Oyster card, this is an electronic ticketing device that you can use in the TfL area (basically greater London) to make journeys. There are card readers at every station and at the start of the journey you simply touch your card onto the yellow panel and then touch out at the end. If you have opted for the pre-pay option this will take money off your card's account. If you have put a Travel Card onto the Oyster then it just logs your journey and hands the data over to a government department (Ok...that last part I hope isn't true, but I'm as sure as heck the data collected has been used somewhere at some point). Usually single journeys from 'anywhere' to 'somewhere else' with an Oyster are cheaper than buying a paper ticket. I have always felt that for a system of travel it is perfect. Efficient, relatively hustle free and cheap.

Although they could have meddled with the names and concepts to make it a bit more interesting. Card readers sounds so droll, so mild, so boring. How about instead of 'card readers' they call them 'quest start portals'? And Oyster? Really? How'd they come up with that one? Even a 'Crustacean Card' would have sounded better. Continuing the 'quest' theme, what about 'Mighty Steed' card. Whims, I venture, but it could have been so much more interesting. Anyway, I digress.

Originally Oyster was only rolled out on the London Underground (and bus) services in July 2003. London Underground is run by TfL and is therefore nationalised. Yet the National Rail services are run by private TOCs and are therefore privatised. It was always hoped, and expected, by TfL and the Mayor, that in time the suburban routes of the National Rail operators, such as South Eastern, Southern, and our beloved SWT, would allow Oyster readers to be placed at their stations so that every traveller in London could enjoy its benefits. Of course when the Mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, muted this, he had the door slammed in his face by the TOCs more than once. Yet, never a man to give up, Ken kept beating away like a persistent door-to-door salesman; getting to the point where he was sitting on the sofa with the TOCs, in their living room (it was a house share), with a cup of tea.

This process of getting Oyster on National Rail services took a long time for a number of reasons. Firstly there was the obvious one. TfL, I hope, is run in the interest of the public (this is of course unless you are Bob Crow) and therefore is a not-for profit organisation. The TOC's are really not. The implementation of Oyster on National Rail routes would mean that many of the fares between stations which the TOCs controlled themselves would actually be reduced as they would be brought in line with the fares of TfL's zonal system. In the end the agreement meant that while Oyster Rates on National Rail services are usually cheaper than the paper tickets, they are now set by the TOCs. Secondly it would mean a lot of investment in the network by the TOCs. The estimated cost of Oyster equipment at SWT's stations cost them an estimated £40 million. Therefore the negotiations, which went on before January 2009, were complicated and frustrating, but by mid-2008 most companies had agreed a deal with TfL. That is except SWT, dragging their feel like a petulant child who screams as everyone walks away.

Basically, I think, they hated the fact that this would be a heavy investment and cut into their immediate profits. This said, most children of this ilk do eventually have to be picked up and brought back to the family. SWT was no exception, and under heavy pressure from TfL and realising they were being left out, they agreed to adopt Oyster. Yet, for making the move they were given one very important concession. (this is the ice cream to calm the kid down).

As many of you will have found out no SWT ticket office will top up or put travel cars on your Oyster, or sell you the thing in the first place. This forces the traveller to go to the local 'travel shops' for all their Oyster needs. SWTs fatuous arguments were that the equipment was too expensive and also that selling Oyster services wasn't part of their franchise agreement. Hang on a minute, it wasn't part of anyone's franchise agreement.

I'm befuzzled, I cannot see why a company that consistently acts as though they only care about profit refuses to sell Oyster products at its ticket offices? While there would be an initial sunk cost, this would be soon made up in the cut they'd get from selling Oyster products. It's not like there isn't a precedent. The owners of the myriad of newsagents certainly, at some point, saw that they could make a bit of extra cash from operating Oyster machines. In addition all the London-connecting TOCs saw the benefit of having Oyster-selling equipment at ticket offices. So why can't SWT? I suspect it is again because it would cut immediately into their profit margin. This, for company who has got a ten year franchise agreement (2007-2017), is incredibly short sighted and is probably loosing them a lot more profit than they realise.

The short-sighted nature of SWT was brought home to me on Thursday. My usual route between Hampton Court and Waterloo is as follows. Firstly I go from Hampton Court to Surbiton, where I change onto the direct train to Waterloo. This train comes from Alton and is one of SWT's long-distance services. On Thursday, after enjoying a mere 7 minutes of stationary delight at Subiton station, I got on my usual fast train. Sitting reading my book I suddenly became aware of the Ticket Inspector, passing through the carriage. He got to me and I dutifully pulled out my Oyster. “Oyster eh”, came the response, “Not to worry,” and moved on without checking a thing. This is not the first time my Oyster hasn't been checked by a SWT ticket inspector, and I am sure it won't be the last. In addition I have a number of friends who have experienced the same thing.

The truth is that SWT staff simply don't have the device issued to most TfL staff to check whether Oysters are valid. Therefore if I am on a train without having 'touched in' at the start of my journey I would technically be travelling without a ticket and would be required to pay a fine of £20. Further there are ticket inspectors on services between stations with no ticket barriers (Whitton to Mortlake, Teddington to Strawberry Hill). Overall it begs the question as to why SWT staff don't have the Oyster checkers? Is the company slow? Have they forgotten something in the run-up to Oyster's introduction? It isn't like they haven't had the time to buy these devices for their ticket inspectors, and they are ten-a-penny elsewhere in London. I can't answer this question, but ultimately SWT haven't bought them and therefore again are loosing revenue. Again, this is possibly because they don't want spend the any more than they have to now, even if long-term this may loose them money.

Overall the point that I have been making throughout this post is that I feel that SWT, as a business, are not long-term thinkers. They care more about immediate profit and their dividends, rather than long-term gain in both reputation and financial terms. With this attitude we can only hope that this company, which I personally perceive as only acting in the interest of Stagecoach's shareholders, looses the franchise in 2017.
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