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Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The Infinite Deniability Principle

By the early Nineties, the British Government were faced with a very serious problem. The Nation's Transport Infrastructure was in crisis, especially the Rail system where bad organization, industrial unrest, and years of underinvestment had transformed Britain from a pioneering force in Railways boasting not only the first, but also the second, recorded Railway fatalities, to the Poor Man of Europe (in Railway terms). Even the Italian Railways were better, courtesy, so legend has it, of Il Duce, although even my most extreme complaints to Transpennine Express nowadays stop short of suggesting that we install a Fascist Dictator just so that I can arrive at work in sufficient time to be insulted about being a "Scouser" all day.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that the solution that the British Government devised was to privatize the Railways, but this type of thinking demonstrates an almost total lack of understanding of how the British bureaucratic mind works. The real problem you see, was not that the transport system was in chaos, but that the Government had to answer questions about it, and deal with the many inherent problems it caused. The Government of the time, and their successors therefore needed solutions based on The Infinite Deniability Principle. Privatizing the railways was only a byproduct of a project, the chief aim of which has been to inject Infinite Deniability, and it's cousin, The Total Whitewash Policy, into every inaction of every bureaucrat who we pay(to ignore us).

In the Railway reforms that have plagued this country for the last twenty years, the project has been a complete success. However, details of that success will have to wait a while, as I explain, as quickly as possible, how the British privatized rail system is funded. Simply put, the British taxpayer pays for it. To elucidate further involves describing how each railway line is put out for tender as franchise by the Government. Companies then bid, every seven years for each franchise, but to make the process attractive to businessmen, franchises all come with a subsidy, paid from the Public Purse. The value of the subsidy is staggering. Figures for the subsidy that that Transpennine receive are mysteriously absent from the Government informational websites, but figures issued by the Government for a smaller franchise can be found at:

The total for this, smaller franchise, over eight years is £1,056,000,000 (that's £1.056 BILLION) for this particular company. As for the company that owns Transpennine Express, a company called First National, it's profits increased last year, just in it's rail sector to £48.5 million pounds, as reported in the article below. The comments from users that follow the article are also worth reading.

I had researched these figures, and knew them by heart when I received a letter from Transpennine explaining why the trains were always late:

" Our new Class 185 trains are of a fixed length - three carriages. The size of the new trains was determined by the available funding, which in itself was set prior to the launch of the franchise. The funding and size of the new fleet are part of our franchise agreement, which we are operating to the guidelines set by the Department for Transport.

We can certainly appreciate that, from a passenger's perspective, adding a fourth carriage would seem an ideal solution to alleviate crowding, however, this is not as simple as it may appear. It would be possible to build additional carriages and integrate them into the units, but this could not be done without significant additional funding. The fleet represents an investment of over £250m, with each carriage costing over £1m.

Barry Hutton, Customer Services Advisor"

While I enjoy being patronized as much as the next man, I'm a bit of a stickler for accuracy. My next letter pointed out to Mr Hutton that he was talking about completely the wrong railway, as the Class 185 train does not usually operate in our region. I did however suggest that in the public interest, if the company took one quarter of it's profits, they could increase their fleet by twelve carriages. The response from his manager was immediate:

"I was sorry to find that my colleague attempted to address your complaint with reference to our 185 rolling stock and I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies for this error. "

However, the manager, Lauren, still plead poverty and laid the blame squarely at the door of the Government, who by inference, have imposed a contract on poor little Transpennine that is punative to the extent that it prevents them improving their services, even if they really, really want to:

"As with any Train Operating Company, we only have a limited fleet in line with our contract with The Department for Transport, but we will continue to monitor our passenger numbers and lobby for extra carriages where necessary."

Obviously, trading letters with some kids in a call center was getting me no-where. Next step was, as previously described, a letter writing campaign to every Member of Parliament, Town Councillor, Passenger Stakeholder Group and interested party I could find along the route. The response has been underwhelming, apart from my local MP, Diana Johnson, who wrote the following to a Mr Vernon Baker, of Macclesfield. Mr Baker is the CEO of Transpennine Express, and was recently in the news for completing the New York Marathon in about three and a half hours. I cannot resist saying that this is considerably quicker than most of his trains could have done the journey.

"Dear Mr Baker,

Re: Martin Nickson, Apartment 1, 109 Park Avenue, Hull, HU5 3EZ

Please find enclosed a copy of the correspondence I have received from the above constituent regarding Hull to Leeds journeys. If what Mr Nickson says is correct then I am very unhappy at the level of service provided. A two car formation for the peak service (7.33) between Hull and Leeds is a poor service. The journey is almost an hour and standing is unacceptable given the price paid for tickets and in addition the fact that it will lead to people using cars instead. I am under the impression that the new rolling stock were brought in to ensure that peak time services on Transpennine routes were made up of three or four car formations. I would be grateful if you could assure me that this will be the case for the 7.33, and 8.37 services out of Hull and the 16.38 and 17.38 services back to Hull for the benefit of my constituents.

I would also be grateful if you could ensure that Mr Nickson receives any compensation which he is due for delays to his journey. I can understand that in exceptional circumstances the correct trains may not be available leading to overcrowding on a two car train. However, I presume running a two car service saves money on fuel and staffing. Perhaps, it might be appropriate to consider passing on some of this saving to your customers who have to stand as a result."

Buoyed by the first glimpses of the campaign I have long predicted, I decided to write to the Department Of Transport. My reasoning was as follows:

a) They are the Department of, ....well...., Transport.

b). As the Department of Transport, they dish out the dosh (ie my money) to these rail cowboys and if anyone is in a position to take some action,it would be them . Because they are responsible for ,... well...., Transport.

The response illustrates the Infinite Deniability Principle brilliantly. The opening is promising:

Dear Mr Nickson

Thank you for your e-mail about overcrowding on the Transpennine

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) is the independent regulator of the
railway industry in Great Britain. One of our key roles is to ensure
that Network Rail, the owner and operator of the national railway
infrastructure (the track and signalling), manages the network
efficiently and in a way that meets the needs of its users, the train
operators. We are also responsible for licensing operators of railway
assets, setting the terms for access by operators to the network and
other railway facilities, and enforcing competition law in the rail
sector. ORR is also responsible for the regulation of health and safety
on the railways.

Good, they ARE the people I should be talking to. Then we get:

However we do not regulate all aspects of the rail industry and have no
remit over the day-to-day provision of services by train operators
except in terms of health and safety. Although we enforce health and
safety legislation on the railways under the Health and Safety at Work
etc Act 1974, the scope of that Act does not extend to the welfare of
passengers or to concerns about comfort and well-being.

More details then follow, describing all the other things the Department is not responsible for, and directing me to write to Passenger Focus, a Government sponsored Stakeholder Group, who are even more powerless than anyone else, but at least get to complain to the Rail Company on nice letterhead.

The overall picture is a very neat example of Infinite Deniability, an endless loop of non-responsibility and inaction. The whole point of the exercise to the casual viewer is to provide a rail service. To those in "the loop", getting people like me from A to B is the last thing on the agenda. The only intersection between the loopers and the loopees is where the loopers manage to take money from the loopees twice for a service that's as bad as it ever was.


Grasshopper said...

Hey Martin,

It seems to me that for your letter-writing campaign to carry any weight, you need to keep hassling your MP. I wonder whether you should petition other passengers on the overcrowded trains? Get signatures demanding better services and/or complaining about existing service. That way, you are one voice representing many - rather than just one voice. And if you're going to spend your time trying to effect change anyway, at least put the weight of the other disgruntled passengers behind you.

BTW, good on you for engaging them with your letters. I know it doesn't seem to get you far but at least you're trying to make a difference.


MJN said...

Hey Grasshopper,

I agree, and have tried engaging the great British public as you suggest. The response partially explains why a Government was able to sell their own railway, coal, steel, shipbuilding and airlines out from under their feet in the first place - Apathy.

Nevertheless, I will not give up. In fact I am currently assembling a one pager to issue to all my fellow passengers inviting them to write, phone and get active. I agree with you it is NEVER too late to get involved and it is certainly NEVER too late to tilt at Windmills.

I actually believe that some of my recent activity will effect some changes, because all joking aside, my previous trade union background has taught me how to run a campaign like this, and I have a complete game plan drawn up. Next step is a press campaign.

Cheers for ploughing through all of that post - Irealised after it was a bit badly written, b ut I'm pushed for time at the moment.