First Great Western – an on-line campaign

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A westbound First Great Western Train crosses Warncliffe Viaduct, Hanwell. (cc) Nigel Cox

(Click for photo in original context and licensing.)

Increasing frustration felt by First Great Western customers caused by cancelled trains, late running, overcrowding and bus substitution led to Britain’s first fare strike by passengers in January 2007. Cuts in service proposed in January this year were countered by threats of further direct action. Finally, Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Transport, was forced to act. On 26 February she issued a ministerial written statement.

The performance of First Great Western has persistently fallen short of its customers’ expectations and has been unacceptable to both passengers and Government.

I can inform the House today that First Great Western has breached its franchise agreement by exceeding the limits on cancellations, and also by misreporting those cancellations.

I can now outline the measures I have taken, and the actions I have agreed with First Great Western, which were reported in an announcement by First plc to the Stock Exchange before the markets opened this morning.

First, I am today issuing First Great Western with a remedial plan notice for exceeding the threshold on cancellations which resulted in a breach of its franchise agreement. In response to this notice, First Great Western will submit a remedial plan for addressing this level of cancellations. Discussions are at an advanced stage on what the plan will contain.

Secondly, I am also today issuing First Great Western with a breach notice for misreporting its cancellations.

Thirdly, and importantly for those using First Great Western services, a substantial package of additional benefits for passengers has been agreed.

Click for the complete statement from Hansard.

It is a breach of Parliamentary protocol for a minister’s decision to be announced outside the House of Commons, before the decision is communicated to MPs. The DfT agreed release by First plc of the news to the Stock Exchange was intended to damp down speculation by shareholders that First were about to loose their franchise. Since March, First Great Western services have at last seen some improvement.

The battle by First Great Western passengers is a model of how such campaigns should be fought in the digital age. A coordinating group was set up with its own website and discussion forum. Here is a taster from the website. The short punchy editorial style is very professional.

Why We Started the Campaign

Thanks to the insane government policy for awarding new train franchises, the First Great Western (FGW) take over of Wessex on 11th December 2006 resulted in 20 carriages immediately being withdrawn from a service that was already running near full capacity. The effect of this was fewer and shorter trains, delays, cancellations and travellers unable to board trains. Travellers refused to pay their fares in the now world famous Fare Strike of January 2007. FGW responded by reducing fares and finding more carriages. Round one to us.

December 2007

FGW are about to hand back 12 coaches to the leasing company, put up fares by 10%, and reduce the number of trains stopping at local stations. FGW are so worried that you won’t be able to get on their trains that they have even been handing out leaflets asking you not to take local trains!

Some commuters decided to vent their anger, by setting up their own websites or blogs. One of these Farce Great Western gives a very good comparison of the difference between commuter railway services in the Netherlands vs. Great Britain.

The train pictured above is
a First Great Western High
Speed Trains. HSTs originally
entered service in 1975.
Trains in the Netherlands
are replaced frequently. This
electric double decker train
is barely 5 years old.
Off-peak restrictions:
leave after 10:00; no return:
between 16:00-19:00.
Peak / off-peak ticket
categories do not exist.
60 mile return ticket
departing at 08:00 – £31.80
€22,70 (£15.25)
Last train from London
approx. 23:00
24 hour service from
Amsterdam

SaveThe Train are campaigning for a decent level of service to the Swindon – Melksham – Southampton line. A line whose services were packed with passengers, but which was butchered by First Great Western with department for Transport approval.

The Swindon to Southampton train service was a success story for Wessex trains, the former operator of the service. They instigated the service in May 2001, and as a result ticket sales for journeys on the northern section of the root rocketed. At Melksham, where this new service of five trains each way daily replaced a twice-a-day shuttle, ticket sales have risen from just over 3,000 to over 27,000 journeys per year.

First group have swallowed up all the ex Wessex trains routes into the new Great Western Franchise, and there are cuts across the South West. The Swindon to Southampton service is to be completely scrapped and as from December, the northern section of the line will be back to its pre-2001 service level … but with trains inconveniently timed in the early morning and in the evening – there will be NOTHING on the line between 07:30 and 18:30.

Yet forecasts show that a two-hourly train service would continue to grow traffic levels at the same rate they’ve risen since 2001 for a number of years to come. Bradford-on-Avon, a neighbouring town that’s half the size of Melksham but with an hourly train service sells 10 times the number of tickets sold for Melksham. Surveys taken at Chippenham station show a significant proportion of car park users driving in from Melksham, Calne and Malmesbury rather than relying on public transport door to door; with an appropriate train service, those car journeys from Melksham at least would be reversed – these customer are clearly happy to use a rail service.

The Train Fellow writes his blog with intelligence and humour a sense of humour. First Great Western’s quality of service may drive him back to using his motor car.

I have chosen the train because, at the moment, it is slightly better than driving. I am actually reconsidering this decision so TrainFellow may become CarFellow…

Reference comments about “accepting public transport is unreliable”. Sorry. Can’t do that. I’ve been to France, Germany etc and their systems are a dream compared with our under-invested railway.

I don’t blame the staff though… generally. Unless they do something really blameworthy. Like stop at the wrong station.

I do blame middle management though as this is, I’m sure, where most of the dodgy decisions are made.

The author of I Hate First Western kept his sanity by switching to another train company.

When I started this blog, I was angry. Livid. To mention the words “First Great Western” to me were unwise, as they would spark a lengthy rant, full of expletives. I was highly pissed off.
I feel I should mention this at this juncture, because I have recently come under attack from someone who feels I am not angry enough, and am some kind of champagne-sipping toff who gets narky if commoners try to invade my space in the first class carriage.

It’s true that I’m not as angry as I was, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone could have that much energy, as being angry is pretty hard going, even for a few days, let alone for 18 months, and makes you liable to lose friends and alienate people. What I did instead was start a blog, in order that I could share my ranting with others with a similar hatred of FGW. And then, I moved house, in order to be nearer to my work. And then, I discovered the alternative service of South West Trains. And, all of these things have made me calmer, because I am opting out of the thing that makes me angry.

Finally, least it be said that BTWT is biased in its reporting, The Truth About First Great Western makes the valid point that not all the problems experienced by customers can be blamed on the company.

First Great Western made the unpopular changes to the December 2006 timetable

This is the biggest myth of all and one that has frequently been repeated in the media and elsewhere. The truth is that the December 2006 timetable was set by the Department for Transport in consultation with Network Rail, and not by First Great Western. Certainly, First Great Western will have been invited to comment and did consult widely on the changes so they could put customer representations for the DfT, however, the final say on timetabling lies with the DfT. It is probable that the customer feedback made by First to the government as a consequence of the consultation process resulted in some proposed cuts being scrapped. Like First Great Western, the majority of other train operating companies also have their timetables set by the Department for Transport.

Nearly all the WWW sites that we have featured in this article have links to yet other First Great Western critic sites. Perhaps, when the history of Britain’s railways in the early 21st century comes to be written, First Great Western’s problems will be seen as the catalyst that turned Britain’s hard pressed railway commuters into a digitally supercharged passenger transport lobby.

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One Response to “First Great Western – an on-line campaign”

  1. Phil Says:

    To be fair to the HST, it IS a very comfortable train even if it was first built in 1975.

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