There are lots of rail experts at the Department for Transport, especially sitting in reception. During the short wait to be lead up to Norman Baker I learned a lot. ‘Now that Branson’s been so successfully rewarded for an appeal who knows what’s going to happen…it’s had a dreadful impact on the whole industry…there’s so much at stake…such high sums involved…especially the fees to the merchant banks…’
Having met him now, I know the Minister would be very disappointed to hear such negativity. Quite charismatic, he is sharp and sure-footed with his facts and obviously undaunted by the presence of the three mandarins sitting with us, one writing down every word we said, and all poised ready to advise him. His polite but increasingly faintly annoyed tone in answering some of my ‘less positive’ questions left no doubt that he is fiercely proud of the rail industry and its achievements.
Initiatives such as the Station Commercial Projects Fund and Access for All are changing the landscape in terms of passenger usability and accessibility, but I wondered if there are still areas for improvement. ‘We’re always open to suggestion,’ said Baker, ‘and are keen that the Toc’s provide some solutions as far as possible rather than the people in this room or somewhere else in this building determining what the best solutions are for each station hundreds of miles away. So in a sense it’s about setting high level objectives here, which I think we’re entitled to do as government – we want passengers to be more satisfied with rail, and we want to make sure disabilities are catered for – but we want to leave it to the rail companies to a large degree to determine how to achieve that, and it’s in their interests to do so. We’ve seen a transformation in recent years, not only in facilities at stations and the access available, but also of the mindset of those that work for the railway, which I think is massively improved from say 20 years ago.’
Access for All a success
Baker is rightly pleased with the Access for All scheme, a cross- party initiative started by Labour. ‘And we’ve extended it of course into the next control period with another £100 million pounds allocated. It’s making a real difference and when you combine that with the massive investment into new rolling stock and the requirement for all trains to be accessible by 2020 then you’ll have a situation where the railway is opening up to people for whom it was never open before, and that really warms me and it’s exciting I think.’
Access for All has indeed been so successful that the desire to trumpet it as a hugely positive aspect of station design must be tempting, but it has also brought a greater awareness of where complete accessibility might not exist. The disability campaign group Transport for All complained to the Advertising Standards Authority recently that Crossrail is claiming the new line will be an ‘accessible’ railway, when seven of its stations are not planned to have step free access. ‘Nearly all stations along the Crossrail route do’ said Baker, ‘and there are particular reasons why it was extraordinarily difficult to retrofit stations – all the new stations are fully accessible of course, but if you retrofit Victorian infrastructure then you are limited in what you can do. I’m pretty confident that the team has done what can sensibly be done.’
Phantom staff reductions?
A recent TUC Action for Rail campaign poll of 1,031 disabled people showed that more than a quarter had been ‘targeted’ at stations or on trains. Quoting TfL’s planned introduction of Driver Only Operation on the London Overground network, the union’s press release warned the loss of train guards and station staff over the next few years will deter the disabled from travelling. I wondered how, if true, this can be reconciled with the Access for All programme.
‘First of all I’m not quite sure what you mean by targeted?’ said Baker. ‘Abused…shouted at’ and at that he looked genuinely concerned. ‘Well I also chair a panel on Crime on Public Transport that involves not just train companies but bus companies, the BTP and so on, and we do identify best practice in that we want to make sure that everybody on the railway or bus station or bus stop is properly looked after so far as possible. So obviously I’m disappointed that anyone is subject to abuse at a railway station or anywhere else, but that figure seems to be rather high to be honest with you.’
In terms of reducing numbers of staff at stations, or ‘changes to arrangements’ as Baker put it, ‘we haven’t yet…to be honest with you the TUC is jumping the gun. These reductions are phantom reductions at the moment and you have to bear in mind that – and I hope they don’t mind me saying so – the TUC’s primary concern is about making sure their members stay in jobs and that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for a union to do, but what we are interested in doing is making sure the network is as accessible as possible for all people, and it may well be that the person in the booking office isn’t necessarily very helpful to somebody on a platform who’s having difficulties.’
In the booking office since 1838
It does seem a recurring theme though, that staff will always be needed, and again recent research from London TravelWatch showed that passengers can be confused by ticket purchasing and they want ‘Visible, knowledgeable, empowered staff at stations’ to answer their queries. Baker clearly holds strong views on this. ‘First of all a lot of stations on the network are un-staffed now and always have been. That’s the position we’ve inherited and frankly there’s not necessarily a case for having a member of staff when there’s hardly anyone traveling from a particular station. I’m very keen that people who are travelling on the railway have access to a human being in some shape or form to be able to answer their queries, and that’s the challenge we’ve got rather than saying the arrangements which have been in place since Victorian times have to be kept in aspic in perpetuity. Just because someone’s worked in the booking office behind the grill since 1838 doesn’t mean that same person should always be doing the exact same thing. Life moves on
but the challenge is to make sure that people have good access to help when they need it and access to a human being, so they should look at that wider context rather than saying ‘nothing must change’ which is a rather negative way that some people look at these matters.’
In moving on to the next question I am reminded that I mentioned smart ticketing as one of the reasons people will always want to talk to a human, and Baker hasn’t finished.
‘Again this is a very negative way of looking at things. This is a great time for the railways and it’s disappointing to me that there are some people out there who are trying to find fault with that when actually we should be celebrating this massive expansion which is going to be great for people.
‘Smart ticketing is a way of making things easier – just look at the success of the Oyster scheme in London which has been transformative – people love it and that’s pushed up passenger numbers. Of course there are challenges with any new system, to make sure it’s explained properly and people understand
it, and that’s a duty upon the Toc’s and others, but you know just because something’s new doesn’t mean we should avoid it. Should we say ‘Oh you know we’ve never had pocket calculators before so we’ll carry on using an abacus’? No. You have to move with the times. Smart ticketing is a good thing for transport and for passengers. Of course we’ve got to explain it properly but we shouldn’t be resisting it because it’s a good step forward.’
A greater voice for passengers in franchising?
Referring to the recent report from Passenger Focus, Baker is fully in agreement that this is a good thing, ‘And we’re doing that because the way we’re franchising is set to change, we’re not having this top down approach microscopically determining how long the buffet at Southampton station is open, that’s not happening any more. Again we’re setting the high level framework and we’re allowing innovation in that
we expect the Toc’s when they’re bidding – and when they’re shortlisted in particular – to engage with the public at large to see what it wants, and we’ve got a space there for them to come back and include those wants in their bid, and we encourage them to do that.’
The industry seems to be aware that there is a certain lack of trust from the public, especially around fare rises, franchising issues and so on. Does it beat itself up too much? ‘I haven’t noticed that particularly,’ said Baker, ‘but what I have noticed is certain among the press, not your magazine obviously, who are very keen to find the highest fare rise possible, put that in big headlines on page one and present that as if it was somehow indicative and representative of all fares. It isn’t. And we’re told we’ve got the highest fares in Europe. We haven’t. You know 85 per cent of our fares are cheaper than they are in Europe. What we have in our fares basket is a combination of long-distance travel whereby most people buy Advance tickets – around 85 to 90 per cent do now, and these can be incredibly cheap – London to Manchester for £20 quid for example, which is extraordinarily good value. So when the newspapers present this as ‘London to Manchester costs hundreds of pounds’ they are referring to an open ticket that virtually no one is buying and I think we have to ask our newspapers to represent the fares as they actually are, rather than finding a headline which is misrepresenting the facts to people.’
No explanation is necessary for readers of this magazine, and Baker has done it because ‘When people buy a railway ticket they want to use a train not a bus, and I think the industry has been too comfortable with rail replacement buses. Network Rail hasn’t been that worried because it gets more time to do the work it has to do, probably more expensively than it should do, and Toc’s haven’t been that bothered because they’ve been fully reimbursed by NR for the trains not running. And indeed sometimes they run their own buses and get money for them, including, until I’ve stopped it from October 1st, effectively fuel duty rebate through the Bus Service Operators Grant. The only person who’s not been happy has been the passenger so we’re putting an end to that.’
Warming to his theme on NR, Baker continued: ‘We’re also putting great pressure on NR to be more efficient in its maintenance and to get costs down in the interests of the passenger, but also to get the occupation time down on the railway. There should be more offsite fabrication and more single line working and we don’t want Sundays taken out. Last time I checked at my station, Lewes, 26 weeks out of 52 there had been engineering works going on – what are they doing? Should I be happy that they’re so occupied on my patch? No I’m not. I want them to be dealing with things differently so the trains are running. Sunday is no longer a dead day, it is a big day for the railways – it’s a day when people want to travel, and a day of potential growth for the industry. I don’t want people to think ‘Oh is the railway running or isn’t it?’ I want them to think it is running and so if there is engineering work to do, why aren’t we doing it on a Monday and Tuesday evening at 10pm at night and taking out last trains for example? We are making progress, the evidence from NR is that possessions are coming down and my efforts on reducing replacement buses will help, but I want to see them go further and I want it to be the case that rail possessions are the exception rather than the rule.’
Baker recalled a story told to him by Andrew Adonis when he was Transport Secretary. ‘He went to visit Japan to see the high speed bullet train and asked them ‘When did you last shut this line for engineering works for repairs?’ And the Japanese had a huddle and they came back and said ‘1976’. I think we have to do rather better than we are doing in this country on that.’
A vision for the future
As a general wish list for five years’ time, Baker would like to see either the completion of or substantial progress with the investment programme. ‘We are electrifying 880 miles of track… that’s one in nine miles electrified compared to nine miles electrified under Labour in 13 years. I’d like the railway to be as accessible as possible so we get more people out of choice using rail. I’d like to see carbon emissions reduced and that means electric trains but it also means better practices on the railways themselves so we don’t have diesel trains sitting in sidings all night with lights on. And I’d like us to have successfully introduced our Fares and Ticketing review, which will improve the offer for passengers.’
Station manager Baker
On his website, I was intrigued to read that Baker had been a station manager after university. ‘I was employed by BR and trained up on the white collar staff programme and they gave me Hornsey station. I was the only person dealing with all the bookings and selling tickets, apart from a couple of guys on the platforms. Saying I ran it is a slightly grand way of putting it but I was in charge of that station I suppose, answering to Finsbury Park which was the main base. I didn’t stay very long – but if I’d stayed longer I could have got free first class travel for life from BR so I made a mistake there didn’t I.’
I wondered, when he was running his small station, did Baker ever imagine that he would end up in his current position. ‘No, but then if you stand as a Liberal you don’t really expect to end up either a) elected or b) a minister. But the good news is that people have historically stood for my party because they believe in it rather than as a career move, because it certainly wasn’t a career move 20 years ago to stand for the Liberals.’
Another thing that stands out is his enormously diverse range of interests, from David Kelly to meeting the Dali Lama. ‘Well there are other MP’s who have interests of course, sometimes eclectic ones – Simon Burns next door has a big interest in American politics and his room is full of American paraphernalia. But I think we need outside interests. The worst kind of MP is a person who has left university, gone straight into their party HQ, become a kind of 12 year-old spotty nerd in Downing Street somewhere, and never having hada proper job, then becomes an MP at 27 and knows nothing about life. They’re not good MP’s and I happen to think my background, and it wasn’t worked out this way, I didn’t work it out like Michael Heseltine on the back of an envelope – but it so happens that running a station, being an environmental researcher, a teacher, a regional director for a record company, running a wine shop – all those different things I’ve done, actually its quite a nice mix of private and public and I think it’s quite a good preparation for being an MP.’
Asked if he would like to add anything else, Baker defers ‘I don’t know but these guys will probably tell me things I shouldn’t have said,’ he laughed. And then when I’d switched the tape off he showed that he has a deep affection for the industry so many know and love. ‘Working at Finsbury Park station years ago when it was under BR, I was told to read out all the stations to Cambridge. And I turned to this guy in the office who’d been there for some time, a rather wizened guy, and said to him, ‘Cor that took a long time to read out all these stations’. He said ‘You don’t want to bother with that. What we do is you see that platform over there for the fast trains coming through to the north? You wait ‘till there’s a train getting near that. You then start saying, ‘The train now approaching platform 3 is for…you then say nothing while the train goes through making a hell of a noise, then after it’s gone through you say ‘and Cambridge’.