Memorandum by City of Stoke on Trent Highways
& Tansportation Division (PRF 01)
PASSENGER RAIL FRANCHISING
Further to the press notice dated 23 July 2001,
I would respond to your points in order as follows:
In my professional opinion I do not believe
that improvements in safety, punctuality, reliability, comfort
and frequency of services will be achieved by extensions to franchises
of the very short time span proposed. Because the privatised rail
companies have, effectively, assumed that their business would
have to be won back at the end of the first series of franchises,
all their investment and planning decisions have been based around
the fixed period of the current franchises. I do not believe that
they are in a position to simply extend their investment plans
to any meaningful degree in a two year extension, unless, as with
the case of Midland Mainline, they are forewarned of the extension
some years before that termination date.
I am not suggesting that safety would be compromised,
but I do not believe that improvements can realistically be expected
of an operator who knows that his time of operations is so short.
Rail investment is a long-term commitment. The
sums involved in investing in heavy rail are considerable. I cannot
accept that operators will seek to upgrade existing or commence
new investment programmes especially with regard to rolling stock
because a two year extension presents no incentive to such a business
as a rail operator to progress additional investment.
Similar comments apply to point three. However,
the recently altered role of Railtrack is such a major change
to the industry's processes that I cannot accept that operators
will somehow "fill the gap". The issue of enhancement
of the network is so vital to future rail development that it
must be clearly identified in policy and operational strategies
which take account of the need for a robust national rail network
which also serves local needs.
The main purpose of an extension would be to
give time for policy review and any possible change in strategic
direction. Bearing in mind the recent developments in the rail
industry, it is perhaps opportune therefore to take this forward
by short-term extensions.
With regard to point four, this Authority was
disappointed at the way in which the Central Trains franchise
was handled. Although the two bidders made an attempt to consult
with Local Authorities, this did not seem to us to result in any
plans to meet the aspirations of this Authority, and then, after
a period of careful discussion with the bidders, backed up by
representations to the SRA and Railtrack, the process was abruptly
terminated. The effect of this action by the SRA has been to apparently
stifle further development of the network in our area. We would
be very concerned indeed if this process were to be replicated
with other franchises. In particular, we remain concerned that
local aspirations are difficult to adequately promote with the
industry. The combination of private companies, the SRA which
has no local or regional offices, and Railtrack whose role and
management structure has changed remarkably, make the development
of rail services extremely difficult in an area such as ours,
where we are not a direct funder of services.
In this Authority's view, a much more robust
mechanism is required to ensure that the aspirations of the Local
Transport Plans of Authorities, combined with changes in our own
City such as the development of a 24-hour economy, the progress
of cultural and leisure facilities, and the upgrade of public
transport generally are reflected in step-change improvements
in local rail services. Much has been achieved in Stoke-on-Trent
towards this end, and in particular Virgin Trains have reacted
positively to our representations, but the issue of the Central
Trains franchise replacement served to emphasise how fragile the
system can be in the progressing of improvement plans.
Some thought perhaps needs to be given to how
the plans and aspirations of Authorities such as the Unitaries
can flow through to the rail companies' own future planning. The
industry culture of regarding itself as separate from the rest
of strategic planning has been largely reversed in the main conurbations
where the PTA's are primary funders, but the same process needs
to be replicated in the unitary conurbations.
We have no observations on point five.
I trust that these comments will be of assistance
to the Committee's investigations, and I would be obliged if this
Authority were kept apprised of its deliberations in due course.
Passenger Transport Manager