Deborah Orr: Tell Sid - I've reached boiling point

'Builder friends tell me that getting Transco to do maintenance is like getting Ariel Sharon to go snowboarding with Arafat'
Click to follow

Six people were injured yesterday, one critically, in a gas explosion in Ashton-under-Lyme, Greater Manchester. The residents of Cavendish Mill had been evacuated, but were caught in the blast less than an hour after they were told they could return to their homes. Transco, the monopoly bulk gas carrier which is in command of the nation's 24 million gas pipes, is reported to be investigating the possibility of fumes from the gas mains being sucked into the converted building.

This awful news served to remind me that I must call Transco again. I call them regularly because I'd like them to move my gas meter a couple of feet, out of the hall and into the cupboard under the stairs. No one else in the whole world except Transco is authorised to do this. I've been asking sporadically for more than a year.

My most recent call went the same way as usual. I explain what I'd like, and a very polite woman asks me my postcode, confirms my address, and tells me she'll send an information pack right away. The first time, this seemed most efficient. On subsequent occasions it has been less impressive.

This time I wearily interject, explaining that I've been promised this information pack a few times before. The nice lady appears bamboozled.

"Hmmm," she replies, "this does seem to be the fourth request. I'll make sure myself that an information pack is sent out right away. You should get it in the next couple of days."

Every time I try to complain to someone at Transco and not at a call centre, I'm headed off with the promise of these packs too. How many seasons, after the information pack arrives, will it take before I actually manage to get a gas fitter into my home? Ages, I'm told. All of my friends and acquaintances in the building trade assure me that getting Transco to do non-essential maintenance is like getting Ariel Sharon to go snowboarding with Yasser Arafat.

Still, my gas meter is merely a cosmetic concern. I'm patient with this public service provider, because I don't have much choice, and anyway my problem is not a large one. Further, if I started obsessing about this I'd end up boiling with rage at my own impotence, at the outrageous fact that privatised utilities are allowed to fob off their customers so shamefully, and that more than a million shareholders get a nice dividend from this woefully inefficient company. Gas meter rage. That really would be pointless, wouldn't it?

Steve Milnes, a 34-year-old builder, was less patient, having found himself in a far more inconvenient situation than mine. In June, he'd been waiting a month for a fitter to come and connect his gas supply, thereby providing his young family with warmth, hot water and the means for cooking.

Mr Milnes had spent hours being bounced round call centres, pressing four-hash on his keypad for option four (etc) and leaving messages which were never, apparently, picked up. Eventually, he called the emergency number, said there was a leak at his address, and invited the engineer to park in his driveway. He then blocked him off with a JCB, saying he would not be released until his gas supply was connected. Which it was, in about 10 minutes.

Transco was indignant at Mr Milnes's behaviour, declared that he ought to have used the complaints procedure that was in place, and announced to the naughty public that the company would now be forced to send out their engineers in pairs, in case there was "trouble". See? This is the way in which are all made to suffer for one man's glorious act of defiance.

Then again, though Mr Milnes's problem may have dwarfed mine, Mr Milnes's looks pretty damned pettifogging when compared to those of the Findlay family, and their bereaved relatives. Andrew and Janette Findlay, of Larkhall, Lanarkshire, were killed in a gas explosion in their home in 1999, along with their 13-year-old daughter and their 11-year-old son.

The relatives claim that Mrs Findlay had complained of gas smells to Transco, and that engineers had left them with the reassurance that they could smell only sewage. An investigation after the explosion confirmed that a steel gas main running under a main road near the house contained 19 leaks caused by corrosion, some as large as a fist.

Since that time, Transco has been ordered by the Health and Safety Executive to replace all of the ductile iron piping similar to that supplying the Findlays' home by the end of 2002. But the relatives have never been given any kind of official explanation of what happened, and are now looking forward to their third Christmas of uncertainty. A decision on whether Transco will be prosecuted in this case will not be made until next year.

Despite these and other deaths, injuries and near misses, Transco's safety record is reckoned to be quite good. The company insists it makes safety its number one concern, and the fact is that judging by the state of all the other services it's supposed to offer, safety appears to be its only concern.

Well, apart from the shareholders, of course, who have just been assured that their dividends are safe with the Lattice Group (parent company to Transco and proud generators of a £581m profit last year). This was quite a relief to the City, as Transco has just finished protracted negotiations with their regulator Ofgen, which has insisted they must cut domestic gas bills.

Transco had argued long and hard that such a demand would jeopardise the health of the entire company and particularly its undertaking – dragged out of it by the Health and Safety Executive – to replace the ailing pipe network within the next three decades. This in itself was a compromise, as the HSA wanted the work completed in 25 years, and Transco preferred 35.

The negotiation was particularly special as the head of Ofgen took the unusual step of actually interceding on Transco's behalf to broker this deal with the HSE.

But never mind that. Transco's deal with Ofgen resulted in a surge in share prices – always a good indication that the regulator is viewed as having been out-bargained. Certainly, if the regulator had taken a look beyond the essential bottom lines of safety and of gas bill costs it would have realised that overpricing your customer is not the only way of making a fool of him. Leaving him hanging on the telephone pleading for work to be done when there are no staff to do it is another.

Which is clearly what's happening with Transco. The company admits to being short of about 1,000 engineers – even though it had the gall during Ofgen negotiations to suggest that staff cutbacks would be the result of punitive regulator action. This staff shortfall dates back to not too long after Sid liberated British Gas and axed the engineer training programme in one of its first acts of fit-and-trim private streamlining.

If, by now, the word "Railtrack" is buzzing in your head, you'll be reassured to know that the only connection between the two companies is not that they're both privatised chunks of natural monopoly with miles of dangerous, ageing infrastructure, loads of furious customers, and masses of shareholders to please. The chairman of the Lattice Group, Sir John Parker, was tipped last year to take over at Railtrack. His clever family talked him out of it. But I think it's safe to assume from this gobbet of information that even Railtrack managed to see that Transco was a company pretty much like itself.