"FIRST - Transforming Travel"

I had not consciously logged First Group's strapline until I was sitting this afternoon in a Palace of Westminster committee room seeing a set of slides produced by Mary Grant, chair of First Capital Connect and managing director of all First Group's rail operations. FCC certainly has "transformed" travel but not perhaps in the way that the marketing copywriters had intended.

Ms Grant was there with Neal Lawson, the new MD of FCC, to meet Norman Baker MP, the LibDem shadow transport secretary, and fellow LibDem MPs Tom Brake and Paul Burstow, both of whom represent constituencies "served" by FCC.  Also present was Bill Bradshaw, former Director of Strategy for British Rail and now LibDem transport spokesman in the House of Lords.  Norman had kindly asked me to join them, together with Nigel Quinton, my counterpart in Hitchin & Harpenden. At least there were no New Labour crocodile tears.  But no tears at all really.  Some routine expressions of regret - "how we inconvenienced passengers was unacceptable" - but I had no sense that they truly understood just how horrible the last few months have been for local commuters. 

As a met police detective said to me last night, "I've never had such an awful time."  We heard a lot of excuses and "force majeure" was dusted down rather a lot. There was some explanation of what went wrong.  The new 377 class trains delivered late by Bombardier so that driver training had to be compressed, taking a lot of drivers away from their daily duties.  Lack of new trains meant the old trains had to stay in service and miss key modifications.  As a result more need to rely on goodwill from the remaining drivers in terms of rest day working.  Mix in an unpopular pay proposal.  Have the inevitable teething problems with new trains, add snow, stir well and wait for chaos.

I listed just some of the litany of complaints I have received, particularly the niggardliness and complexity of the compensation packages, and I compared it with the much more generous terms offered to travellers in Berlin who experienced a similar collapse in service.  I particularly criticised the Delay Repay scheme, echoing many comments made to me by St Albans travellers. Ms Grant told us that they had already processed 73,000 delay repay schemes, with many more coming in.  When pressed, she conceded that they were being as flexible as possible.  Firstly the 30 minute delay is being measured against the original timetable and not the emergency one. I am not sure this has been clearly communicated so I am communicating it now.  Secondly they are waiving all time limits for claims.  Thirdly they will not demand tickets or receipts as long as there is some evidence of travel, for example a credit card bill.  I report all this because it may allow people to bump up their own personal compensation, albeit through a tediously bureaucratic process.

I suspect it won't help the occasional traveller even when they are regular users - I have had numbers of comments from people who travel into London off peak or no more than three times a week.  In both cases there is no need for them to have season tickets and they slip through the net. I told her about inaudible announcements at West Hampstead, rude and offensive staff at St Pancras, and flakey text alerts.  I told her that FCC was deep in the mire and would have a long journey to recover any respect from its customers.  "God is in the detail" I said - they will have to be perfect in every aspect - clean toilets, clean stations and rolling stock, excellent timekeeping, good real time communication, full length trains, staff there when you want them.  It will be a long haul back, I'm not sure FCC gets it, in which case steps should be taken to remove the franchise.

I hope any reader using St Albans City Station comes along to Meet The Managers this coming Friday between 4.30 and 7 pm.  Mary Grant won't be there, but Neal Lawson will - and so will Three Counties Radio.  It will be worth making your voice heard.

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