The success of OxRailAction in bringing First Great Western to heel has lessons for those who would take on any large organisation. What worked against FGW will work against Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council.
OxRailAction was formed in reaction to the new morning train timetable introduced by First Great Western on 10 December 2006 on the route from Oxford to London. On that day, according to the OxRailAction campaign Blog at http://oxrailaction.wordpress.com/, “the quality of life of Oxford’s commuters took a dramatic turn for the worse”. Carrying capacity was reduced by 80%.
First Great Western’s first reaction was to deny that that any serious inconvenience would result. Their second was to insist that there would be no revision to the timetable despite the protests. Their third, after the formation of the protest group, pressure from MPs and others and bags of unfavourable publicity, was to back-track and restore some at least of the axed services. The reduction, according to OxRailAction, is now nearer 20% than 80%.
There a lot here to interest Inciter, despite the fact that I gave up commuting to London in 1993. It is good to see a campaign of ordinary people spring from nowhere and defeat an arrogant provider of public or quasi-public services. It is good also to see the Blog format adopted as an opinion-forming, comment-gathering, rallying standard in defence of quality of life – a narrow, focused example of what I aim to do on wider fronts.
The privatised railways are an interesting model for anyone concerned about the growing gulf between public standards and individual expectations. Take the civil servant-ish attitudes of the pre-nationalisation railways – dull plodders grinding unwillingly through the working day with no ambition but to crawl up the shallow promotion pyramid and survive to retirement, and stuff the customer because the pay will be the same anyway. Mix in the post-privatisation profit motive – raise the prices, cut the services and screw the customer because he has to use our services anyway.
Throw in a Prime Minister so uninterested in improving rail travel that he put John Prescott in charge of railways for his first two terms – the political equivalent of the oubliette. Lastly add Gordon Brown’s usual attitude – greed for franchise revenues coupled with complete indifference to any outcome which cannot be measured in cash received.
There is a book to be written on all this, but not by me. I am only interested in things which can be changed and in national terms the railways are a lost cause. What pleases me about OxRailAction’s success is the confirmation that if a local cause is fought with determination, under clear leadership, and with good publicity for focused objectives, it can be won.
The secret is, in part, to remember that, however big the organisation, decisions are made ultimately by individuals. Salesmen are trained to try and identify at an early stage who the decision-maker is, and the same is true for protesters. OxRailAction achieved that, dragging the right person out from under her desk and bringing some big guns to bear on her.
It is perhaps easier to identify the decision-maker in a business organisation – you by-pass the monkeys and head straight for the organ-grinder, who usually has “Managing Director” engraved on his or her door. It can be harder with public authorities who are adept at buck-passing and throwing dust over the true decision-making trail.
The norm is for the officers to blame the elected members whilst the councillors blame the officers. It is not expressed as “blame” of course. I am engaged in correspondence with the Head of Transport at Oxfordshire County Council in a saga (which I will report elsewhere) involving inter alia a false figure being given to a public meeting for the cost of a contentious mock “consultation” – the outlay was understated by a third.
The officer wants me to understand that “officers work to the policy and objectives set by elected members”. I have not yet heard from the councillor concerned saying that “elected members follow the advice given by the relevant officers” but that is the usual cop-out of so-called decision-makers in local government. Part of Oxford Inciter’s purpose is to cut through this sot of crap and try and identify the real culprits.
There are other lessons here for the big organisations and for protesters in any parallel context. First Great Western could not possibly have won this battle – having made their original and patently wrong decision, their speedy retreat is a better outcome for them than sticking to their guns would have been, in circumstances where their victim-customers must either take their business elsewhere or be reminded daily who is to blame for the misery. What tactician takes to the field on those terms?
The lesson for the protesters whom I aim to incite is not just to leap at it but to keep at it. Most of the decisions made by Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council do not raise the repeating itch suffered by daily commuters. We forget or get used what has been done – a monstrous new building ruins a vista; a recreation ground remains a quagmire because the money to drain it is wasted on something else; a beautiful square is defaced by bollards; a few millions go on a pointless road scheme – and we protest for a while, then move on.
My aim is to keep the memory of such things alive in the hope, if not of reversing them, of preventing a recurrence.
OxRailAction’s web site says that that they intend to stay in existence to watch over the interests of First Great Western’s passengers. Their expressed ambition is constructive dialogue. If they don’t get what they want, I hope they make a damned nuisance of themselves.