FirstGroup, the rail and bus operator, has produced nothing, except fury and poverty in its customers and fat profits for its shareholders,
I had a chance yesterday to test my long-standing thesis that FirstGroup, the rail and bus operator, is the worst company in Britain. I suggested writing my column about it – and a gratifying chorus of hatred swiftly arose from all my colleagues. “Are they the b——s that run the Thameslink line? Go get ’em!” was the general consensus.
FirstGroup, for those readers fortunate enough not to live within its clutches, is an organisation which specialises in taking functioning transport services and reducing them to chaos. It is carefully working through all the bits of its empire, one by one.
In 2007, it was First Great Western’s branch lines that got the treatment. Despite rising passenger numbers, trains were deliberately shortened to save money – or even cancelled altogether, and turned into buses. The predictable result was passengers left on platforms, overcrowding so bad that some people fainted, and a full-scale fare strike by West Country commuters.
In 2008, the seats in First’s mainline High Speed Trains were refitted. What was once a pleasant journey turned into a hellish ordeal in carriages somewhere between a charter aircraft and the London Underground. Not so much HST, more DVT.
Then, in 2009, First came for Thameslink, renamed “First Capital Connect”. This cross-London line from Bedford to Brighton, with 200,000 commuters a day, was already Britain’s most overcrowded. Last Group didn’t recruit enough drivers, and relied on overtime to run the service. The unions imposed an overtime ban – and “First Capital Connect” melted down.
Now the pay dispute is settled, but Cursed Group still hasn’t restored full service. In the recent snow, disruption on First lasted days longer than on other London rail companies. “Every time there are problems on the route, the company seems to do it worse than everybody else,” says one local MP, Alistair Burt.
You may say that calling it “the worst company in Britain” is a little harsh. Surely arms dealers and toxic waste emitters are higher in the queue? But good people (like the British Army) need arms as well as the bad guys; and toxic waste is usually at least a by-product of something productive.
First Group has produced nothing, except fury and poverty in its customers and fat profits for its shareholders. It has, instead, degraded and mismanaged its part of a vital national asset. It is Britain’s worst company, because it is Britain’s prime example of how very good business can be directly against the public interest.
Finally, it seems, the Government is taking notice – and in the world of railways, you have to be pretty bad for that. Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, has described First’s “substandard” performance as “a matter of acute concern to me and my department”. Yesterday, he threatened to sack it from Thameslink if it didn’t pull its socks up.
First could, perhaps, be forgiven for not being too scared about this. So hard has the Government come down on the company, for instance, that it paid them £140 million of taxpayers’ money this year to compensate for falling revenues. Adonis did, it is true, accept the resignation of another privatised transport disaster, National Express, from the East Coast franchise. But the person he got in to run it, Elaine Holt, is the former managing director of… First Capital Connect.
Adonis is, I think, a breath of fresh air: the first transport secretary in years who actually seems to like railways. But he still believes in a private model for this monopoly public service – a model almost bound to exploit and fail customers, with First Group as only the most extreme example. On the railways, we need to stop propping up failure, and try something else.
HAVING PERSONALLY SUFFERRED AT THE HANDS OF THESE FIRST GREAT WESTERN CROOKS WHO THINK NOTHING OF MAKING A SEASON TICKET HOLDER FROM BRISTOL TO LONDON PAY AROUND £9000 FOR A YEAR’S TRAVEL (EXCLUDING PARKING) – AND THEN RUN LITTLE MORE THAN 85% OF THE TRAINS ON TIME- I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH THIS ARTICLE (editor)