I must admit that the Train Driver within me initially felt a touch of relief when it was announced that Bombardier had not been awarded the Thameslink contract, albeit solely for the fact that I found the poor design of the 377 so frustrating. The political activist within me however, viewed things differently, and when the ramifications for the Derby works hit home, I felt angry towards the government for making yet more empty promises.
Obviously, the loss of such a high level and prestigious contract signals difficult times ahead for the Bombardier works in Derby, and its workforce. Protests are planned, parliamentary manoeuvres have commenced. National newspapers have begun bellowing the war cries of outrage at the thought of a German company being awarded the contract over a ‘British’ one.
I cannot help feeling though that we are missing the point by directing the full force of our venom at David Cameron.
Yes, he made promises that he was not willing to keep. Yes, he proved himself to be as flimsy in government as he was lightweight in opposition, if not opportunist. But he alone does not deserve the full brunt of blame for Bombardier failing to win that contract.
I have spent a few years driving Bombardier’s staple offering to the EMU market within the UK. The 377 is a train that epitomises the term ‘unfulfilled potential’ The units acquit themselves brilliantly in terms of braking and acceleration when in AC mode, but are dogged by poor ergonomics and design and suffer from repeated operating problems, and lazy indifference in terms of comparative performance when in DC mode.
Many drivers have been exposed to repetitive injuries as a result of driving the train for extended times, in addition to muscular skeletal issues as a result of the positioning of the DOO screens and the design of the seat.
The fact that the Mk 5 units are of worse specification than the Mk 1’s, with all of the improvements made to previous sets as a result of sustained campaigning by dedicated ASLEF reps being ignored, merely underlines not only how poor in some areas these trains truly are, but also the fact that, owing to their braking and acceleration, they are vastly underperforming, and are nowhere near well enough designed to realise their full potential. This is a true shame, and in actual fact a betrayal of the Derby workforce by the Bombardier design and management teams.
TOCs have to share blame for this. Service issues could be avoided or minimised if Driver training was more in depth, and the DfT must accept that their failure to insist on improvements to the basic design, as well as their short sighted penny pinching has not helped.
The main failing is that the 377 overall is that it is full of promise that is choked off because of a lack of investment. Essentially though, Bombardier has shown that its products are, despite the quality of the craftsmanship at its disposal, a step behind other players in the sector. This is a hard truth, but in my opinion, a truth nonetheless.
Siemens have a proven track record in delivering high specification rolling stock with minimal operating and maintenance issues, and were even a step ahead when it came to financing deals.
The management team at Bombardier must accept that they have been simply outplayed by their competitors. The workforce have every right to feel aggrieved at Cameron turning his back on them, but they need also to direct some of their anger at those within the management of the company who failed to see that they needed to step it up a level.
On a purely commercial basis, I can see why the contract was awarded to Siemens. On a political and moral level however, the waters become much more clouded.
The DfT have admitted for example, that they have not carried out an assessment on the potential decimating impact of this decision on employment in the East Midlands, despite thousands of jobs relying on Bombardier. Ignoring the inevitable exodus of train building expertise from the UK, they have arrogantly scurried behind concocted excuses and falsified accusations levelled at the Labour Party, and EU rules.
At every twist and turn they have hung the workers at Derby out to dry, overall by overall, work boot by work boot, whilst cynically hanging the blame for it on the shadows of the previous administration, and the European Union.
Cameron and the government have dined hungrily on promises made to the Daily Mail reading masses about ‘standing up to Europe’ and ‘Putting British interests first’ etc.
On his first big industrial test, Cameron has failed.
Sadly for the dedicated and skilled workers at Derby, I fear that the management of Bombardier have unlocked the backdoor for the Tories on this issue by failing to win the bid on merit, despite the Government’s litany of broken promises.