Sunday, 24 January 2010

The BR v NR debate - data versus anecdote?

NR's Internet Rapid Rebuttal Unit has responded, at length, to our man at 222 Marylebone Road's challenge to prove that Network Rail is better than British Rail.

As the IRRU responded in some detail - Eye thought it best to run this piece as a new post.

So here it is...

Ooooh, where to start?

Deep breath.

Let's first deal with the implication that Network Rail won't be able to accommodate a sub-four hour, 'Flying Scotsman' London-Edinburgh service whilst BR had no problem.

What we have said is that we'll give it a go.

As our statement on Thursday said we're going to speak to ALL the operators on East Coast - eight passenger and freight companies - to see if we can come to a good solution.

Of course, we understand the benefits of fast journey times and we will do our best to accommodate that, whilst all the time remaining aware of the needs of ALL operators on the route.

The big difference between today and the time of BR is that the railway is busier. More of that later.

Also it's worth reminding readers why there isn't a Flying Scotsman today. The service in its most recent form existed from the late 1990s - so there’s no question the journey time is achievable. However, that service was removed from the winter timetable 2002 (which came into force on 27 September that year) for three reasons:

  1. Demand was low, as there was only one stop between London and Edinburgh filling a 1,000 seat train every day proved impossible
  2. It was having a significant detrimental effect on capacity on the ECML generally
  3. Performance was bad
In summary, the most important reason it was caped, is that GNER couldn't make it pay.

Next, let's deal with the anecdotal evidence - which is trotted out so often by the rose-spectacled fraternity - that BR was fantastic and better than any of its successor organisations.

Firstly, I have the highest respect for the people of BR who worked wonders with an anarchic stop/go funding arrangement.

They achieved engineering marvels on a shoestring and had a deep commitment to training and development.

On the latter point Network Rail has sought to emulate and surpass BR's record (shockingly neglected by Railtrack) - this is evident in our signalling and maintenance training centres, our leadership development centre at Westwood and our fantastic apprentice scheme at Gosport.

Brief advert: We are currently recruiting for our 2010 apprentice intake, junior Railwayeyers should point their browsers here if they want a rewarding career on Britain's railways.

On the debit side we should not forget that BR was a byword for lousy customer service, stroppy industrial relations and had a safety record which would not stand up to scrutiny today.

The customer service issue has largely been addressed post-privatisation by great entrepreneurial innovation by passenger operators, both franchised and open access.

Enough of anecdote, let's have some cold, hard data.

I have FOUR thrilling charts for you.

The first two show clearly on two key indicators - capacity and punctuality - that Network Rail is outperforming BR and indeed Railtrack.

I am well aware of arguments over data and am more than willing to engage with anyone on the issues, but for the sake of brevity here I assert that the data in these charts is robust and accurate (you throw at me 'timetable padding', I'll throw back BR 'void' days, etc, etc, ad nauseum).

As in the statement (from me) in the Telegraph that 222 quotes in his post "no matter how you slice it we are more punctual than ever". On the capacity chart I thought it would also be useful to show a comparison with how many trains are run each day in France.

The third chart - which admittedly does not go as far back as BR days shows the other key indicator and that is of safety- in particular train accident risk.

Finally, I thought again it might be interesting to place our safety record in a European context.

Okay, even if you concede that Network Rail is doing a good job and outperforming BR on many key indicators, you're going to tell me 'Ah, that's all very well, but it cost so much more.' To that I'll reply is that you're getting more for your money.

Ultimately what Britain spends on its railway is decided by its voters - we get the railway we vote for.

Right, still with me?

I'm sure there are examples that anyone can quote of things at which BR excelled. Network Rail is humble enough to admit that.

There are, of course, things that we can do better at. But as someone once said before 'we're getting there.'

UPDATE: The Fact Compiler adds his tuppence-worth.

A clever quote from the IRRU.

As old hands will remember it comes from BR's own 1986 comms' strategy, part of which tried to show that yesterday's railway was viewed through rose coloured spectacles.


You can find more of the same here (scroll down).

UPDATE: This from Ithuriel...

Note that NR's punctuality charts go back only to 1992/93, when British Rail was about to start tearing itself apart for privatisation.

They then fall until 1996/97 when the first franchises are running, everyone breaths a deep sigh of relief, and instead of setting up MBOs think they can concentrate on running the railway.

This lasts for two years, then reliability falls as people realise that its not BR with extra cash, that's when the buggeration starts to tell.

As for 'more for your money'. Five times more?

UPDATE: This, allegedly, from a Mr Don King...

Hey. You guys in Brit Land.

Ah just wanna say that if that Response Unit guy wants to tell my old friend Chris Green to his face that he had lousy customer service at Network South East and Intercity , ah reckon ah could fill the 02 arena for the fight.

UPDATE: This from Bushy...

On a point of order - the rapid rebuttal unit quotes a 1,000 seat train.

Now even if that train was standard class, HST trailers with 74 seats, then surely that's a 13+ carriage HST, or even longer with first class.

Surely he means 500 seats in each direction?

UPDATE: NR's IRRU responds...

Quite right - the 1,000 figure relates to the total on the daily services.

UPDATE: This from Jumbo...

Wow! Network Rail's Internet Rapid Rebuttal Unit is in fine form today but, in their excitement have they got their facts right?

Was there only one 3h59m train in each direction between London and Edinburgh in the 1991 timetable? What about the 08.00 and 15.00 from Kings Cross on the down together with the 06.00 and 15.00 from Edinburgh on the up?

And was there really only one intermediate stop?

Surely all of those trains called at York and Newcastle?

In any event, if the demand was low for these fast trains it hardly bodes well for the 05.20 Edinburgh to Kings Cross shown in the SLC2 timetable as taking 4h20m. If the punters did not fancy a 3h59m journey leaving Edinburgh at 06.00 it is hardly likely that they will think much of a train leaving 40m earlier and taking 20m longer.

NR's commitment to fast journey times is very welcome so could we have some action please?

In the late 1970s I travelled regularly on the 15.50 Kings Cross to Leeds which was booked to run non-stop to Newark in 68m but often managed 66m. Over thirty years later, the SLC2 timetable shows the 17.49 Kings Cross taking no less than 85m to Newark albeit with a Peterborough stop.

As the IRRU are busy trawling through history, I am sure that they will recall that for much of it's existence BR recorded trains that did not arrive exactly RT as late, and that it was only in response to John Major's Citizen's Charter that things changed.

So as NR claim such a good punctuality record how about getting real and recognising that whilst to the industry a train that arrives 10m behind schedule is on time, to a passenger it is late?

OK, if it makes NR happy, BR were a byword for lousy customer services but they did try and do engineering work in a way that minimised inconvenience to passengers.

Would BR's engineers have been allowed total possession of the railway from Boston to Skegness for weeks on end, especially when the line is normally shut for 9 hours each night and for 16 hours on Saturdays?

UPDATE: This from Leo Pink...

One doesn't like the thought of getting the industrious, if historically challenged, IRRU into trouble, but he is seriously off message if he thinks that "What we have said is that we'll give it a go" will suffice.

The announcement by Lord Hornby-of-the-Loft-Layout on the sub 4 hour London-Edinburgh timing is quite clear that NR will 'facilitate' this return to faster days.

That the wording agreed between DfT Rail and Network Rail the night before may not have included the 'F' word is entirely irrelevant... until the 7th May.