During September many of you have either signed the Epetition or voiced your opinion on the franchise of the West Coast Mainline currently being run by Virgin Trains. From 9th December this should be the First Group as they were awarded the franchise by the government. Due to a challenge by the incumbent this now looks doubtful and will have to be run by the government just like the East Coast Trains franchise at present.
This of course causes uncertainty for the people who work for Virgin trains as well as staff in First Group. However from the public point of view does it really matter as long as the trains run as advertised, on time and at a reasonable price? Both Virgin and First group in their bids promise various things some in great detail, other parts of the bids just an overall commitment but no firm promises. Even some people are calling on the government to nationalise the railway again and save money in the long term. I don’t think that will ever happen and whoever bids for future franchises will have to think carefully of what they promise.
Stop press - West Coast Main Line Franchise Competition Cancelled -
Whatever happens on the West Coast route for a while the trains and staff will be the same, go to same destinations and charge an ever increasing price per ticket. But what about the existing franchises that have still some years to run are they delivering on the service they promised.
In our region the main commuter train operating company is London Midland. London Midland operates train services through the heart of England from London in the south, to Birmingham in the Midlands and Liverpool in the north west. London Midland began operating on 11 November 2007.
Just lately London Midland have had a situation where trains are being cancelled across its service due to shortage of train crew. Rail replacement bus services to fill the gaps or passengers just having to wait for the next available service.
The social media as you would expect has a hive of lively debate on the subject and many people comment as though they know how to run a railway operation.
Some have even take the opportunity to have a go at the person who is operating the twitter account (http://twitter.com/londonmidland ) as if it was their fault personally of the shortage of train crew. I am aware that the people who are manning the London Midland twitter account do not do it as their main job but as an aside because they wish to help their customers get the information required during times of disruption. I don't know of many training operating companies who have staff who man twitter until the early hours of the morning and also really engage with the users as well as this company. But i digress as much as the twitter rapport is great I know that without trains passengers cannot travel and that's what frustrates some people. Personally I find I am more delayed by the buses being more unreliable in my area of the West Midlands than the trains but that's another story
Now I don’t run a railway or profess to have an in-depth knowledge of railway operations but do take a keen interest in the behind the scenes areas. I have never worked directly within the industry but through my working life I have helped people get from A to B with my knowledge gleaned more as an enthusiast and to promote public transport.
I know a long time ago under the old British Rail regime there were staff sitting around New Street station or on “rest day relief” just in case someone didn't turn up for work or cover was needed. No employer these days likes staff sitting around being unproductive. Today things are very different I know and there are not as many staff to do these cover duties. There are all sorts of things that cause difficulties and cancellations including disruption on the line through cable theft or signal failure which displaces train crew, sickness, planned staff training and as we hear for more often in the news unfortunately people deciding to take their life or play dangerously on a railway line. These are just a few incidents I know which can have a major impact on providing a service and I’m sure you can think of more beside the wrong kind snow, leaves etc.
Just like in other industries staff apply for jobs with other companies and if successful wish to move as soon as their contract allows them to. I believe this has been the case with London Midland where quite a few staff have got jobs with the longer distance train operating companies and subsequent increase in salary and I don’t blame them. Most companies have forward planning for the average turnover of staff and to ensure that they have qualified staff to take their place. But training takes time and if a lot go in a short space of time there is most definitely a shortfall.
I’m told to qualify as a driver takes between 9 and 18 months and to illustrate what a driver has to do I will refer you to the ASLEF website
Its not surprising in my opinion how long it takes to become qualified given the responsibility and the safety requirements. In contrast from my brief online research it takes a person around 9 years to become a GP. An airplane pilot up to 10 years and I could go on but am sure you see the point that replacing staff cant happen in a short time.
London Midland have stated through twitter that they will soon have more drivers who are nearing the end of their training and will come on stream soon. Of course in the early stages they will not be driving solo but be being observed by experienced drivers. Vacancies for Senior conductors are also being filled and successful applicants will be undertaking the required training. Its a slow process I know and can be very frustrating for us passengers at times but if there aint qualified staff available other than recruit more and train them what can be done.
If London Midland lost their franchise tomorrow and another company took over what would happen? Well like the ending Virgin Trains Franchise the existing staff would transfer to the new company (whoever it would be) and their would still be cancellations as the new company couldn't suddenly find qualified staff I’m sure.
These views expressed here are my own as I see things and not those of the South Staffs Rail Group in general
Dave Cresswell 1st October 2012