Seasonal Area November 2012

The November Seasonal Area takes us to the Wye Valley area for the first time in quite a while – the closest in the online archive was January 2009. As a general rule the attitude has been that Tintern, Bigsweir, Redbrook et al all feature quite enough on the rest of the website.

Readers should rest assured that the sudden appearance of a picture showing the landscape above Tintern is not going to result in the rest of the website mysteriously vanishing. It may instead result in something happening to the masses of scenic non-railway Wye Valley pictures which litter the Order’s picture archive.

It was a pleasant, sunny and mildly hilly walk around one of the more obscure side-valleys of the Wye, though the gloom of the time of year meant that the last bit was completed in conditions starting to verge on the dark.

___…___

West Coast Mainline update – current betting would seem to be that Virgin Trains has obtained a further extension of a year or so on relatively favourable terms based on the awkwardness of getting the franchise off them ready for the 9th of December. In due course everyone will be invited to spend another £10million each on bids for a two-year franchise and then, probably after the next General Election at the current rate, the franchise will be re-let on a term intended to take it up to the opening of Phase 1 of High Speed 2 (around 2026 – possibly sooner, since it’s the only thing the Government has left that they can be seen to be doing so they have plenty of time and resources to rush it along).

The curiosity about West Coast going on hold while the Government restructures the franchising system is that the new franchise should actually have begun in April, 15 years plus a tidy rounding bit since the Virgin franchise began in those heady days of 1997 when everyone said franchising was doomed, the industry was screwed and Labour would almost certainly renationalise when they came to power. However, the letting of the contract was delayed while the Government restructured the franchising system.

It’s hard to argue that the post-2005 system worked, but at least franchises were eventually let without too much argument.

(Rail franchising divides easily into a batch of distinct phases over its 16-year career, though this summary is a bit sweeping and they aren’t by any means official phases. Phase 1 was 1996-97, when the Office for Passenger Rail Franchising let lengthy franchises on vague bids about growth, fare cuts and investment at a rate of 25 franchises in 8 months. For Phase 2 (2001 to 2005) Labour abolished the Office and replaced it with the Strategic Rail Authority, which didn’t get to let any franchises until after the Hatfield crash encouraged costs to explode and so went with lengthy franchises on tighter bids promising steady-state zero-growth. As it became apparent that passenger levels were growing despite a refusal to buy new trains the Government decided to initiate Phase 3 (2006 to 2010) by abolishing the Authority and doing the whole business itself. This resulted in tight bids detailing the refurbishment of station toilets, purchases of pencils and so forth on the basis that passenger levels would grow massively and therefore the operators would be able to pay the Government bags of money to run the franchise (albeit without any extra trains to carry the passengers in because extra trains cost more money). Labour didn’t really like privatisation so this phase was also politically useful as several of the franchises didn’t actually generate 10% annual growth  and therefore went to the wall (they peaked at about 8%, which over a course of several years with turnover in the hundreds of millions becomes an awfully big difference in hard cash). We now have Phase 4 – since no long-term franchise has yet been successfully let under Phase 4 it is difficult to note any form of legacy except for a massive nostalgia for the efficiency of Phase 1. Throughout all of this the huge, lumbering 19th-century mass-transport rail industry has carried ever-growing numbers of presumably happy passengers in ever safer conditions, but for some odd unaccountable reason costs have gone up.)

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