The UK government announced this week that it had plans to transform the rail services in the United Kingdom.  Not before time you might think, but what interested me more than the announcement itself was the contents and context of the statement made.  The statement from the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said passengers had been failed by “years of fragmentation, confusion and overcomplication”, with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying “”For too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve,”.  The statement was accompanied with a ‘plan’ for ‘Great British Railways‘: a plan which contains little in terms of detail, and concrete objectives.

The rail system in the United Kingdom was privatised between 1994 and 1997 under a Conservative government; and was not revoked during the following 13 years of Labour government.  Essentially, the system of disparate legal entities running train franchises has remained unchanged since this time (over many governments).  The initial franchises ran for 6-7 years, a contract length which was then extended to 10 years by the newly elected Conservative government in 2010.  This extension would suggest that other than perhaps a question over the viability of the contract length, the government was happy with the performance of what is now being termed a ‘fragmented’ service.  Perhaps then, what issues there are now with the system  were not present or understood until well after 2010.  So either the governments from 1997 until now were not measuring or simply didn’t understand the system.  (It is possible that the ‘goals’ of these governments were that they WANTED a non-functional system – but what government would aim for that..?)

The ‘plan’ comprises a Foreword (which serves as a criticism/ problem statement) and Promises, against which (I assume) the success of the plan can be measured.   The Foreword is indicative of the lack of responsibility being shown in that it is jointly written by the Secretary of State for Transport (the person in charge of managing the rail network) and clearly states that “…we need someone in charge”!  (Perhaps the current and previous Secretaries of State who held the responsibility of ‘being in charge’ just aren’t/ weren’t very good at it then..?)  It goes on to say that the current system is a “maze of agreements between hundreds of different parties, drawn up and policed by battalions of lawyers… arguing about who is at fault for each delayed train. Change is slow and comes by painstaking negotiation. In the new world, that cannot work.”  To me, this sounds distinctly unviable in ANY environment – how was it ever approved?

This ‘fragmented’ system is one over which the current Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps has presided for nearly 2 years.  Indeed, he was minister during the awarding of a new rail franchise in 2019 – which he praised as “…positive news for passengers… and… represents a decisive shift towards a new model for rail.”  So we can criticise the system, but not those who implemented or run it – and we (apparently) should believe that the person who managed this oh-so terrible system is the very person to put it right…

Now please don’t take this the wrong way, I am supportive of the ability to recognise a flawed system: to accept responsibility for a failure and to take steps to put it right is a positive and healthy thing.  Unfortunately, that is not what is being done here.  This plan is yet another combination of vague, unsubstantiated criticism followed by (mostly) vague unmeasurable intentions: it admits of neither a sense of responsibility for the problem, nor a sense of responsibility for the solution.  In short, it is a wish statement.  The Promises are:

  • We will bring the railways back together, delivering more punctual and reliable services
  • We will make the railways easier to use
  • We will rebuild public transport use after the pandemic
  • We will maintain safe, secure railways for all
  • We will keep the best elements of the private sector that have helped to drive growth
  • We will make the railways more efficient
  • We want to grow, not shrink, the network

As they stand, and without further clarification, these are both unmeasurable and unquantifiable.

Having worked as both a project and a product manager, I am well aware of the fact that initial plans do not always come to fruition, and that the ideas that we start with can often be ill-informed or can be later proven wrong.  This is a key reason for setting goals, targets and performance reviews regularly during the life-time of any project or product. I am also aware, that unless you have a specific and detailed scope towards which you can aim, there is little, if any chance of delivering on your goals – since at a very basic level you have no idea when/ if they have been achieved.  All goals, even political ones should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

If they are not, then there is no empirical way of determining success, which in turn means that there is no way to hold anyone to account for the ultimate delivery and performance.  This is standard industry practice – but obviously isn’t what the government means when it says it wants to embrace the best of the private-sector.

Even considering the very obvious lack of acceptance of responsibility, it is a positive move to hear government(s) openly criticise a system which it put in place and did nothing to address for more than 2 decades.  The failure to implement the appropriate delivery mechanisms to ensure that the success or failure of these proposals however, means that it is utterly irrelevant to the future of the rail service.  If a government REALLY wishes to seek improvement, then it should be forced to say specifically what that is, and how it can be measured – and this must be done at the start of a project.  We cannot continue to accept proposals based around vague concepts.  Any government proud of its ideas, should be willing to stand behind them.

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