Outlook: Rail confusion

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The Independent Online
WHEN BRIAN Souter, chairman of Stagecoach was asked what he was going to do about the rising level of customer complaints at South West Trains, he allegedly replied; "Nothing. When a brick comes through my window then I'll know there's something to worry about".

Those who have met this dishevelled looking Scot would recognise this remark as tongue in cheek. Moreover, Mr Souter plainly took some notice. Yesterday's Rail Complaints Bulletin from the Office of the Rail Regulator lists South West Trains as one of the least complained about franchises last year, so Mr Souter seems to have something to smile about.

Not so fast, says Tom Winsor, the new Rail Regulator. Over the past few weeks Mr Winsor has been doing a passable imitation of the hyperactive Ann Widdecombe, apparently determined to keep himself in the headlines for just as long as the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is minding the shop. Last week he was threatening to fine Railtrack upwards of pounds 40m. Yesterday he was banging on about a "completely unacceptable" level of complaints. Today Railtrack is in his sights again with another update on his review of Railtrack's access charges. Is there no stopping this man?

Plainly not, for although South West Trains may have had one of the lowest levels of the complaints, Mr Winsor went on the radio to say they were nowhere near high enough. The real reason why complaints were so low at franchises like South West was because regular commuter passengers were so ground down by poor levels of service that they had simply stopped complaining and accepted their lot. More irregular long distance passengers on services such as Virgin's West coast line were much more prone to complain, he said.

Confusingly, Mr Winsor has no sanctions whatsoever when it comes to the performance of the rail operating companies. That task is left to Sir Alastair Morton's Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, which can either fine them or ultimately refuse to renew their franchise. "Non-performers will be non-starters" at the next round, as Sir Alastair puts it with characteristic bluntness.

In the end, the best protection against poor quality service is not regulation at all, but competition. Unfortunately, there's been precious little of this on the railways since privatisation, despite the "open access" provisions built into the legislation. Nor will there be if regulators have their way. They worry that to sanction more competition would be to risk an anarchy of cherrypicking and a logjam of trains on the more lucrative routes. In most instances it would be practically impossible to administer, they insist.

Well may be, may be not, but if we do for ever have to rely on regulation to ensure decent service and prices, then it is about time the whole process was clarified. As things stand, rail regulation is about as confusing as a Virgin Trains timetable and although there may be little competition on the railways, there's plenty of it among the regulators. Train bashing is not confined to the two industry specific regulators. There's also Mr Prescott and the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee sticking their oar in whenever the opportunity presents itself. Just who is meant to be doing what to whom, and in who's interests? Should we not be told?