Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by North Somerset Council (PRF 02)

Passenger Rail Franchising

  The Planning and Transport Committee of my Council considered the draft franchising statement and press notice issued by Stephen Byers on the 16th July 2001.

  Members were concerned about the change in policy to encourage franchise extensions rather than new franchises as it was felt that in the North Somerset context the lack of a new Wessex franchise could seriously affect the ability to deliver rail improvements.

  I was instructed to write to Stephen Byers Secretary of State and to make a written submission to the Transport Sub Committee setting out the Council's concerns about the change in policy.

  The Council's submission addresses the first three bullet points set out in Press Notice 03/2001-02 dated 23rd July 2001. In particular failure to proceed with the Wessex Franchise will not in North Somerset's view achieve rapid improvements in reliability, comfort etc., and will not secure investment in additional improvements and capacity or provide a framework for major infrastructure enhancements.

  The Council recognises the difficulties experienced under the current re-franchising regime and acknowledges that early benefits may be achieved by renegotiating some existing franchise such as the First Great Western Franchise. Clearly North Somerset would potentially benefit through this process.

  However, Members are concerned about the potential impact of the new franchising statement on the proposal for the Wessex franchise. This franchise would replace the existing Wales and West Local Services and the rest of this statement focuses on the future of these services.

  My Council is taking an active role in the development of rail policy and is working closely with the SRA and Railtrack to identify and deliver significant improvements to rail services including expanding the current rail network.

  Day to day contact with the current franchise operator in the Bristol area (previously Wales & West) have made it clear that the current franchise is unable to do any more than survive until the end of the franchise period. Indeed because of the financial basis of the current franchise it has been a struggle to avoid service reductions. It is the Council's view that the current franchise does not give scope to deliver critical improvements to the rail network in North Somerset.

  At present the M5 motorway is the main commuter route between Weston-super-Mare and Bristol and is heavily congested. The rail service provides the only alternative and is constrained by questionable reliability and overcrowding. There is also poor integration of services with destinations and modes and an irregular service pattern.

  The Council has worked closely with the SRA on the process of re-franchising and is strongly supportive of the new Wessex Franchise Concept and the separation of Wessex from Wales and the Borders.

  The new Franchise will establish a Bristol operating unit which will be able to focus on the needs of the Bristol area to develop an integrated rail network. At present there is no focus within the franchise to pull together the service network for the Bristol area.

  Discussions have been held with the SRA and potential bidders to define the level and nature of services which are required. Recognising the strategic nature of rail services North Somerset has joined with the other Unitary Authorities in the Bristol Area to formulate a Rail Strategy document. This document is seen by the Councils as fundamental to delivering the Avon Structure Plan Spatial Strategy. The Council's Policy and priorities are set out in the Local Transport Plan.

  The Council is also an active member of the South West Regional Assembly. The strategic rail requirements and priorities for the South West reflect North Somerset priorities and are recognised as being of sub regional importance because the Bristol area is identified in the draft Regional Planning Guidance as the main growth area in the South West.

  An agreed rail vision for the South West has been prepared in collaboration with the SWRDA. If the Regional and Sub Regional Spatial Strategies are to be delivered it is vital that the rail improvements for the Bristol area are implemented.

  Within North Somerset the Council has committed substantial resources (£125,000) to assist the process of re-franchising. Consultants have been commissioned and have now reported recommending the re-establishment of a rail passenger service between the regeneration area of Portishead Dockside and Bristol. This link has considerable potential to provide a journey to work route into Bristol, as well as facilitating tourist visits.

  Another study has assessed in detail the potential for an improved clock face service between Weston-super-Mare and Yate via Bristol.

  The results of the studies have been discussed with the SRA, potential bidders and Railtrack. Indeed Railtrack's Incremental Outputs Scheme already identifies infrastructure improvements between Weston-super-Mare and Bristol as high priority.

  In conclusion North Somerset has worked with other partners at a local, Sub Regional and Regional level to identify what is required to achieve the Governments objectives of increased local rail use and reduced overcrowding in the context of Structure Plan and Regional Planning Spatial Strategies. The improvements identified are vital to the achievement of the spatial strategies and in the view of the Council can only be delivered through re-franchising.

Chris Mitchell

Assistant Director

Environmental Strategy & Policy

September 2001

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