Richard Bowker: We can and will deliver a better rail service

From a speech given by the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority at the 'Rail' magazine conference in London
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The Independent Online

Last week we published the Strategic Plan, and it was reasonably well received – except by the popular press. Passenger groups welcomed it; the rail freight industry welcomed it; the passenger rail industry welcomed it, informed commentators such as the CBI welcomed it, but the press, unsurprisingly, said it would not work.

So today's conference is a wake-up call to the whole industry to get behind the plan and tell the world that we can and will deliver. The railway has not performed well since the middle of 2000, and public opinion has fallen over the last two years, driven by blanket media coverage of every shortcoming. But my target is to change this radically over the next two years. We are going to roll the stone uphill, and I am prepared to lead if you will help to give the push we need to get it going.

The best way to improve public perception is, of course, to deliver a consistently reliable service, in terms of safety, punctuality and customer service. One of the things I am keen to understand is why is this so difficult. Why can't we keep the toilets clean, why can't we tell passengers what is going on, why can't we have staff who are attentive and put the customer first? These are not matters of strategy or financial engineering. They are basic rules of good service, and we fail to get them right time and time again. Train operators have to raise their game just as much as the infrastructure provider and the regulatory bodies. This will only be achieved through considerable team effort.

I know standards are different for railways, and we know that road accidents are about as newsworthy as airline delays, cancelled buses, or the prices and quality at motorway service areas. So what? We knew all these things when we signed up. An American friend of mine frequently says, "Wake up and smell the coffee!" We cannot wave a magic wand and suddenly make the railway perform perfectly, but we can, and must, get the basics right.

At the same time, we need to say it loud and clear when we do succeed. That is why I endorse the National Rail Awards, and similar initiatives to encourage best practice. That is why new train launches are good things. That is why it is fantastic to announce franchise extensions with £100m of investment. Once the improvement starts, and can be seen to be happening, it becomes easier to persuade people that we can do more, and that the railway justifies support and investment.

I see nothing philosophically wrong with the contractual separation of infrastructure and operations. What I believe has gone wrong is the management of the interface. I believe failure of management to be at the heart of why the privatised railway has not delivered. I am not saying that everyone has been a bad manager. We have asked people to carry out tasks for which they are not equipped.

Sir Peter Parker has a wonderful expression: "Don't ask Frank Sinatra to explain the atom bomb, ask him to croon." How many times I have sat in meetings with people on the other side who had no more idea of how to construct a commercial agreement that I had about specifying track geometry. We really have to raise our game on this. Engineers do engineering, operators should operate and commercial people should negotiate, all within a common framework designed to achieve aligned objectives.

The SRA cannot deliver this plan alone. We need the support of many other agencies and companies. We also need Railtrack to come out of administration in a form in which it can play its part effectively in managing the railway infrastructure; we need greater confidence and stability in the industry, to encourage private investment; and we need to tackle the skill and resourcing shortages that are holding back so many developments.

We know that, beyond today's problems, we have a railway that still has enormous potential, which we believe we can unlock.