Five things I learnt as a three term member of Network Rail

I was one of the original Network Rail members and have served three terms in total (though I haven’t been a member throughout NR’s existance). My Membership comes to an end on the 23rd November

This is what I have learned

 

railway tracks1. It’s a tough job but a worthwhile one – and not – repeat not – a waste of time.

It’s tough because it is secondary governance – there to give a strategic steer and a nudge, or more than that if things are going badly wrong. It’s tough because the Network Rail job is largely a practical and technical one. It doesn’t determine national rail policy (that would be much easier to have a view on), its main job is to build, maintain and operate kit which could kill people if the wrong decisions are taken. It’s tough to judge how well they are doing in any kind of detail given the technical and practical nature of the vast job that NR does. NR pays consultants to say they are doing a good job, ORR pays consultants to say they aren’t. Who’s right? Getting to the bottom of everything would be a full time job – and NR governance is part time. But the job is worthwhile. Britain’s railways are an amazing thing – and as a Member of Network Rail you get to play a part. A small but an important part. Which is why secondary governance is not a waste of time. ‘What can the Members do that NR will take any notice of?’ people wail! ‘The members are pointless!’ Not so. NR members have a nuclear option – sacking the executive. ‘So what?’ people say, ‘it’s too drastic a deterrent for it ever to be used’.  Well nuclear weapons were not used in the cold war but they certainly influenced behaviour! And NR members have influenced behaviour on safety and the management of the company (the RIDDOR affair) and on the bonus culture. And that’s the job – not running the company – but acting as a trustee of the company.

2. Value the informed mavericks.

In my three terms as an NR member the most effective members have been Bob Rixham (who skilfully used his membership to surface the RIDDOR scandal) and Tony Berkeley. I fear a smaller membership recruited by the Membership Selection Panel (with all its PLC corporate governance theology and square mile elitist flimflam) will lead to a monoculture membership made up of Home Counties FT readers with time on their hands. And if PLC corporate governance is the gold standard that we are all told we can only begin to dream of emulating, how come the banks were allowed to run riot and crash the global economy? No – what the membership needs is not self-regarding, group think. Instead it needs to be balanced, made up of people with different perspectives and life experience. And it needs mavericks.

3. Members shouldn’t waste time naval gazing about the nature of the job, and dreaming about what you would like the job to be.

The governance of Network Rail (and the rest of the railway) only changes when Government wants it to – not the members. If you want to manage Network Rail then get a job with them. The Members are secondary governance. Not shadow managers. They are also individuals who are there to exercise their individual judgement (informed by discussions between themselves and with Network Rail). There is nothing shameful about not having a collective view (see above). And remember there is no perfect governance system – for all NR’s imperfections, overall it’s done a good job since it was created. And its governance is better than if it were a PLC (I call Railtrack to the witness box your honour) or fully nationalised (if it were to be at the beck and call of a desiccated and cynical civil service culture as BR was).

4. No-one seems to be paying much attention to this but NR wants to turn itself into a global player (and perhaps then privatised) off the back of its role in running the UK rail network.

Exciting stuff for its senior staff no doubt. Mixing it with DB and the French in the race for world domination of the public transport sector. But I’m not sure the members have been consulted on this key strategic development. And personally I think NR’s main focus should continue to be consolidating the GB rail network in a more cost effective, accountable and integrated way than the current costly shambles that is the privatised railway. That’s a big enough and exciting enough job in itself and it’s what the taxpayer pays Network Rail to do.

5. Administrative hygiene.

Network Rail needs to get the basics right. Minutes of meetings, papers circulated in advance, questions responded to in a timely fashion. Members are paranoid enough as it is about how seriously they are taken by Network Rail. If NR consistently fails on basic administrative hygiene (which it did throughout my three terms of membership – despite a lot of promises) then Members become more convinced that they are being treated disrespectfully. And people really hate that! I am convinced that half of the endless naval gazing about the Members’ roles that dominates so many NR members meetings would disappear if NR consistently got the basics right in terms of proper administrative support for the members.

Thank you and good night!

Jonathan Bray

Buses matter to young people – and young people should matter to us

School children on the bus

Young people are among the biggest users of bus services

Buses matter to young people. This past year, we have seen just how much. Nationwide polling by UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) of 65,000 young people in 2011, and 250,000 young people in 2012, identified ‘Public transport: Cheaper, better, accessible’ as a priority concern. Members of the UKYP at their annual sitting in the House of Commons decided that, of all the issues raised by young people, public transport should be the key focus of campaigning in 2012.

Since then, we have seen the newly formed Youth Select Committee – made up entirely of young people – choose public transport as the topic for their inaugural inquiry, something that pteg has been delighted to be a part of.

For most young people, the bus represents their main experience of public transport. The bus enables young people to access a whole host of valuable opportunities, from attainment–boosting after school clubs and weekend jobs, to visiting friends and participating in sports. These opportunities are vital to their growth and development.

Young people are already among the biggest users of buses, but they also represent the future market for bus travel. More progressive transport authorities and operators are recognising the need to cultivate this young market.

Young people and Norman Baker MP in Committee Room

Young campaigners meet with Transport Minister Norman Baker earlier this year

Furthermore, they are recognising that young people can be powerful advocates for bus travel when we get it right – or damning critics when we get it wrong. In the age of social media, young people’s experiences – whether good or bad – have the potential to spread rapidly to their peers, their extended networks and beyond. This, combined with growing calls for increasing youth participation in decision-making (such as the Government’s ‘Positive for Youth’ statement), means that the voice of young people has never been louder, or more influential.

At local level, transport authorities and operators alike can expect to be increasingly held to account by young people for the decisions they make. This is particularly likely given that young people have been  hard hit by transport spending cuts. In efforts to balance budgets, concessionary fares schemes for this group have been cut back, whilst the evening and weekend bus services they value are often the first to disappear when times are tough.

Whilst recognising that the current spending environment is difficult, and that unpopular decisions must sometimes be made to protect services for the wider community, we believe there is still much that transport authorities and operators can do to develop a good offer on bus for young people. Our new report, ‘Moving on: Working towards a better public transport offer for young people in tough times’ aims to present ideas and generate discussion around what such an offer could include.

In developing an offer, ‘Moving on’ urges transport authorities and operators to keep three key messages in mind.

1. The importance of actively engaging young people in the process

We know that many young people are passionate about improving public transport and have some great ideas about how this can be achieved. Getting to realistic solutions means working with young people to generate a dialogue about what can practically be done. It’s about developing an offer with – rather than for – young people.

Young people on a sofa

Develop an offer with – rather than for – young people

Involving young people in this way doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or time and, ultimately, is likely to save money by ensuring what is provided has the buy-in of those that it is aimed at. Listening to, and acting on, the suggestions of young passengers makes it more likely that they will use and value bus services now and in future.

2. The need to develop a package of measures

There is no silver bullet for improving bus services for young people. The offer needs to address the need for bus services that are available, affordable, accessible and acceptable – the cornerstones of any socially inclusive transport service. Only in addressing each of these can we hope to develop a service that enables young people to access the opportunities that will allow them to move forward in their lives.

In developing a package, it is also important to recognise the differences and similarities in the needs of young people of different ages. One size definitely does not fit all young people. For this reason, the ideas in our report are presented in four age categories – under 5s, 5 to 11 year olds, 11 to 16 year olds and post 16.

3. Maintain a focus on simplicity

Simplicity in fares, networks and information benefit all passengers.

We know that young people are frequently left baffled by the intricacies and eccentricities of bus service delivery outside London. It is important to work with young people to help them get to grips with how the system works, but also to try and eliminate unnecessary complexity where possible.

On fares, for example, evidence shows that young people value flat, simple and consistent offers. They have campaigned independently to secure such offers in their areas and experience suggests that, once in place, they result in young people making more journeys. One of our report’s case studies, for example, describes how a bus company introduced a new service to meet the extra demand generated by the introduction of a flat, simple and consistent fare for young people.

We hope that the key messages of this report – to work with young people to develop simple packages of measures – and the ideas it contains can be used as a starting point for discussions which will ultimately result in an offer on bus that works for young people in your area. Working with young people to develop such an offer could help build a loyalty to public transport that lasts a lifetime.

Buses matter to young people – and young people should matter to us.

Rebecca Fuller

Policy and Research Advisor, pteg

Party conferences 2012 – round-up

Nick Clegg being photographed at Lib Dem party conference

After the party conference bubble, a clearer picture of each party’s transport policies emerges

Autumn Party conferences can be a bit of a blur – mini-political Glastonburys for politicians and the travelling roadshow of journalists and lobbyists. A bubble of meetings, speeches and talk. But when you finally get on the train back to the real world you do leave with a clearer impression of where each party is at on the key transport issues.

Liberal Democrats

On transport, the Lib Dem conference is all about Norman Baker – who continues to throw his considerable energies into making the very most of his tenure at Transport. He’s doing this by shaping local transport around his own priorities – but within the context of a coalition Government that is reducing and devolving public spending.

What are Norman’s priorities? I would say:

  • The mainstreaming of spending on active travel.
  • Holding the line on the use of all the bus powers in the Local Transport Act 2008 (including Quality Contracts).
  • Making sure that the more rural areas don’t lose out from any changes.
  • And perhaps, most challenging of all, trying to find a way through the thicket of a fragmented, deregulated / privatised public transport network to get to the prize of a more integrated offer for passengers including smart and simple ticketing.

This degree of activity and intent is not a common feature in junior transport ministers (who usually cautiously read out whatever the officials give them before moving on). In some ways Norman’s approach is also a further example of ‘managed localism’ – via a series of centrally determined funding competitions – but there’s no doubt that it is proving successful on objective one especially, which is the mainstreaming of cycling in particular with local transport policy.

Labour

Meet the new Barbara Castle? If Labour is elected (and all other things remain equal in the shadow cabinet) then Maria Eagle could go right through from opposition to government. Why the Barbara Castle comparison? Well in the 1960s Harold Wilson decided that for once Government was going to make transport a priority and Castle seized the opportunity with one of the biggest packages of progressive transport legislation the country had seen – the 1968 Transport Act – which among other things created the PTEs.

At Labour conference Maria Eagle certainly seems fired up to seize the moment if she has the opportunity. If the Eagle lands at Marsham Street then a not-for-profit InterCity network, a devolved local rail network and a managed transition from bus deregulation to local transport authority control would be her priorities. However there’s a lot that could happen between then and now – and she would need the two Eds on her side too.

Conservatives

If the new Secretary of State was appointed as a ‘steady eddie’ to keep the transport brief tranquil then, not for the first time, this is already proving harder than it looks – with the west coast franchise blowing up in the DfT’s face.

But that aside, what also emerged from the Conservative party conference was:

  • A very firm commitment to HS2 from McLoughlin to further demoralise the anti-campaign and to kill off the niggling stories in the press about whether it’s really going to happen or not
  • The emergence of a ‘mods and rockers’ debate on buses within Conservatives who are interested in buses. Whilst new DfT Stephen Hammond continues to pursue the traditional Eighties-style hard line in favour of bus deregulation, Steve Norris told the pteg fringe that it should be down to local transport authorities to decide. Indeed there’s a fair few Conservative MPs now who are far more interested in outcomes than they are in defending the principle of bus deregulation and recognise that franchising is a perfectly reasonable view to take.
  • Roads are back – kinda. Talk of building new motorways as a gut response to economic problems is becoming semi-respectable again – but there’s far from a groundswell for it and perhaps a trace memory of just how unpopular massive road building programmes can be – particularly among voters in the prosperous, over-heated South East

Time for Whitehall to let go?

This was the question that each of our fringe meetings posed in its title. And the answer at all three was a resounding yes! The will and the impulse is there…but to get the devolution that really matters off the launch pad (bus and rail) before the gravitational pull of the civil service pulls it back to earth. Now that’s the hard bit.

Jonathan Bray