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

Memorandum by Passengers in the North East (PRF 22)



  This response has been prepared on behalf on the North East Branch of the Railway Development Society, Coastliners (Sunderland to Middlesbrough line), the Saltburn Line User Group and the Tyne Valley Rail User Group, the members of each of these organisations being people who use and are interested in the railways locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. The Minister has set out his objectives and approach, these in principle being to effect major changes to passenger services in the short term by negotiating amendments to the existing franchises and where appropriate, agreeing short extensions to those franchises.

  The Transport Committee proposes now to consider whether the new approach will, in summary:

    —  ensure that rapid improvements in service and quality are achieved;

    —  secure investment in additional network capacity and other improvements;

    —  provide the framework for major infrastructure enhancements, outwith the remit of Railtrack;

    —  transform the SRA's leadership of the industry and its day-to-day management of franchises;

    —  improve the poor state of industrial relations in the railways.

  To address these considerations, this document will first sketch briefly the needs of the railways in the North East and then discuss the potential for the new approach to achieve success in the areas identified by the Committee.


  The service provided by the railway across the national network continues to be below the standard which passengers are entitled to expect and which is achieved elsewhere. The causes are well documented and vary from track and signalling problems, through defective and insufficient rolling stock to widespread staff shortages and management weaknesses. The paragraphs in this Section set out some of the key characteristics and changes which are considered essential in the North East, if the railway is to be developed sufficiently to realise its full potential in the overall transport plan.

  The integrated railway must make coherent provision for both InterCity and Local services for passengers and for freight, across the Region regardless of service provider. Expansion of the network has become essential to provide major diversionary routes, (eg the Leamside route being reopened for freight, regular mainline passenger and regular local and diversionary services) with existing facilities being exploited and enhanced, to provide a network of services between the major towns and conurbations of the North East. Local services must be developed to provide comfortable, reliable, punctual journeys to and from destinations in the suburban and rural areas, both as journeys in their own right and as connecting services for longer journeys. A crucial target is to achieve door-to-door journey times which will contribute to a reduction in motor car dependence.

  Most infrastructure developments would demand industry-wide consensus and commitment. Clear vision for the future in the short and long term will have to be developed in a flexible way which can be constructively revised as the Regional Transport Strategy for the North East evolves. Strong leadership from the SRA will be essential, not only to compile and update the vision and its translation into a plan but also to supervise the delivery of the plan through the medium of its franchises and other contractual arrangements. Such leadership will have to be positive, progressive, dynamic and sustained coherently across the organisations which from time to time comprise the national railway.

  InterCity train quality should equal or better that of the Eurostar trains now in service between York and London. Local trains should at least achieve and maintain the standard of "Sprinter" units. Operating companies should be required to have a train strengthening or duplicating capability to cope with failures and occasional, unexpectedly high demand. Maintenance programmes and facility locations must be further developed to ensure that, together with the provision of spare trains, train services are practically never cancelled because trains are not available. Trains must be clean both inside and out with on-board, internal cleaning being carried out during longer journeys and at turn round on shorter journeys. Toilets must be cleaned to a prescribed schedule and maintained to a high standard.

  Franchise contracts with all operators must require cooperation in timetable provision to give a good network of services between the towns along common routes (for example, Berwick, Alnmouth, Morpeth, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington and Northallerton in the North East, all of which are served by at least two and some by three operators). Integrated transport must start not only with this basic framework but must be extended to a system of reliable connections with local services, regardless of operator. This development must also recognise the need for later evening and early morning connecting trains to facilitate longer out-and-back journeys within the day. A radical re-think of weekend services, especially Sunday services is long overdue.

  On-board personnel must be smart, considerate, helpful and available. Driver only operation trains may be attractive commercially but completely fail to meet the need for passenger care and attention. Spare crews, suitable trained, must be available at key locations, so that staff shortage is practically never the cause of a service cancellation.

  Stations served by InterCity trains must be comfortable, clean and pleasant places to be and wait in. Services provided must be all those necessary for those travelling, those making advance arrangements and those waiting. Local stations must be of an equally high standard with facilities appropriate to the journeys involved. External to the station, the franchise must require the operator to work with the civic authorities to ensure pleasant, well maintained and signed approaches. Equally, considerate thought must be given to the onward travelling needs of the passenger whether by foot, cycle, car, bus or taxi.

  There is a clear need to build on the success of the National Rail Enquiry Service, extending the provision into company-independent ticket sales and real time information on current train performance. Real time information must be available by telephone but also internet/WAP enquiry. Progress in this direction is evolving through the commercial process but leadership and coordination is now necessary.

  Whilst some of the operating companies have made strenuous efforts to consult their current and potential passengers (Arriva Trains Northern being one such company), the industry generally has not appeared to do so. Indeed, the formal franchising process does not appear to consider passengers to be stakeholders in the industry! The succession of contracts and subcontracts involved in the current railway means that most of those involved in delivering the service are insulated from the only true customer, namely the passenger.

  Having created a railway which is operated largely by contract and subcontract, it is now apparent that the mechanisms available to ensure that the work is discharged according to the contractual intent are inadequate. This inadequacy is apparent in activities from major maintenance to minor cleaning operations and future franchises must include an enforceable mechanism for ensuring minimum standards are achieved in all areas of passenger concern.

  The need to market the railway has changed in its nature as a result of recent events. That the population now wrongly perceives car travel to be safer than rail travel illustrates the need for sensitive, effective marketing led by the SRA, driven by ATOC and implemented and interpreted by the operating companies.

  This submission has not sought to suggest radical change to the structure of the railway, such considerations appearing to be outside the scope of the current investigation. However, it is important to note that a much more responsive railway would result from decentralisation of control, with increased local managerial responsibility and greater empowerment of local staff. This point would be as true of the SRA and the Regulator as it is of the operating companies, Railtrack and their subcontractors.


  Against this background, the aspects identified by the Committee will now be considered:

Will the new approach ensure that rapid improvements in the safety, punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency of services are achieved?

  Without being complacent, it is unclear as to whether improvements in railway operating safety should be a particularly high priority. Already the safest mode of travel when passenger statistics are considered, even including recent sad events, it is clear that the railways should continue to strive to use the best available technology to prevent accidents. There is, however, an equally clear and arguably more urgent need to raise the awareness of the public regarding the true safety standards achieved.

  The new approach does indeed offer the potential to improve service punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency, but only if linked very clearly to a common, industry-wide vision led by the SRA and enforced through its contracts and contract monitoring arrangements. The requirements of the North East outlined above make clear that the changes needed are extensive, detailed and complex. To be effective, therefore, the SRA would have to develop a network of regional offices and route management teams, perhaps not totally unlike that of the Highways Agency, to work closely with the service providers.

  Many improvements in local services in the North East would be possible without huge investment. It should therefore be possible to agree such improvements quickly and effectively under the new approach. For example, local services serving Gateshead MetroCentre are adequate for shoppers but not for staff who have to arrive before the centre opens or leave after it shuts. Equally, many of the information and facility improvements of this type should be equally achievable under the new approach. Staffing issues too, from cleaning to driving, should be amenable to rapid improvement within the franchise framework as should timetable coordination and connecting service improvements.

  Currently, the timetable within which the SRA sees its operations to fit is very extended. Even the relatively simple reopening of an existing line, such as the Leamside Line, to develop a strategic route is seen within the Strategic Agenda to require four to seven years for implementation. Equally, the process times consumed by the abortive ECML and TransPennine franchise bids would make rapid improvements impossible. Clearly, a prerequisite of success for the new approach would be a radical review of the processes and reduction of the timescales within the SRA.

Will the new approach secure investment in additional network capacity and other improvements to meet both the long and short-term needs of the railways and will the sums allocated to rail investment remain adequate in the light of events since the publication of the government's ten-year plan for transport?

  The new approach in isolation is likely to inhibit investment in the railway, since the timescale over which a return might be made on the capital invested is too short. However, a more vigorous use of existing powers together with any strengthening of those powers which might be needed, would allow a suitable directed, empowered and motivated SRA to guarantee returns in the event of later changes in franchise holder. So, for example, GNER and the SRA could respectively fund and guarantee the return, on the new rolling stock required for the improved ECML services envisaged.

  The sums allocated to rail investment do not seem to be a key question at this time. Rather, the key to progress appears to be in the source of those sums. Whatever the political view, it appears that Railtrack will be a liability rather than a source of major investment funds for some time to come. Much of the declared funding will have to be provided from the public purse as the 10 year plan already intends for the road network. Some will be available through agreements with operating companies, passenger and freight, but for infrastructure works, direct funding through the SRA, as through the Highways Agency for roads, will now be essential. Clearly, if such changes of approach are to be achieved in time for the new approach to deliver rapid improvements, then a rigorous transformation of the SRA will be essential.

Will the new approach provide the framework for major infrastructure enhancement projects to be taken forward now that Railtrack is to focus on the maintenance and renewal of the existing network?

  The franchise holders have not hitherto owned or had responsibility for the operating infrastructure and the new approach does not appear intent on changing that arrangement. Whilst past enhancement programmes have been initiated by Railtrack alone or jointly with others (ECML, Leeds 1st, WCML), it now appears that major franchise holders will be more able than Railtrack to plan and take forward the infrastructure needs of the future. The new arrangements for upgrading the ECML, coordinated by the SRA, appear to indicate one way forward but there may be other, equally effective, ways of achieving partnership arrangements.

  Major decisions about the ownership of existing and new infrastructure appear now to have become essential and meanwhile, there is continuing uncertainty about the ability of Railtrack to discharge even its maintenance and renewal responsibilities. Complementary to the new approach, therefore, it appears vital and urgent to review the funding of Railtrack and the role of the SRA in the provision of renewals, incremental improvements and comprehensive upgrades in a timely manner. That simple pointwork at Hexham cannot currently be undertaken before 2004, illustrates well the current malaise. Short term, operating company franchise charges and extensions appear unlikely to have any relevance in this area.

Will the new approach transform the SRA's leadership of the industry, its day-to-day management of franchises and the way in which it assesses and awards new and extended contracts for passenger services?

  The new approach will not achieve such a transformation. Rather, it will demand such a transformation, if it is to succeed. The SRA has been a huge disappointment as far as providing leadership is concerned; the transformation of the SRA will have to be rigorous. Radical and itself brought about in a very short timescale such that the transformed SRA is in place at a date sufficiently early to deliver the new approach. Success will be critically dependent on the new chairman and the terms of reference (s)he is given. Areas which will require transformation are indicated above but in short include:

    —  Vision—capable, outside the contractual context, of distilling the visions of the component parts of the railway, into a coherent whole, deliverable within the contractual context.

    —  Leadership—a positive, dynamic leader of the industry, capable of securing consensus in those areas which demand network integration and direct agreement in those areas affecting individual operating companies, with a clear ability to distinguish between the two.

    —  Responsive—a regional as well as national leader with strong contract management capability in both contexts. A knowledgeable and dynamic contributor to the development of regional and national transport strategies, delivered in timescales appropriate to the new approach.

    —  Pragmatic—capable of facilitating integration between competing commercial entities to bring about the service enhancements required by the passenger.

    —  Progressive—recognising that the future involves much more than the improvement of the present network; the future demands active support of the many communities now campaigning for new and reopened stations, lines and services.

    —  Steward—the key to not only state investment management but also to the support necessary to ensure private sector funding is realised for appropriate projects; if not the owner of the network then demonstrating a clear stewardship of the railway, responsible, dynamic and involved.

  Clearly, this paper is not the place for a treatise on the SRA and the SRA itself no doubt has many good, imaginative ideas for the way ahead. The key point that this paper seeks to make in response to the question posed is that radical change of the SRA is an essential prerequisite for success by the new approach. Such change is unlikely to be engendered simply by imposing the new approach on the SRA.

Will the new approach improve the poor state of industrial relations in the railways?

  Before accepting that industrial relations generally are poor in the railways, it would appear proper for a comparative study to be undertaken and published. The proposed changes in the role of guards do not appear to have been handled well by the operators but on the other hand, GNER appears to have trained its crews and customer contact staff well, providing sufficient people to do the job, and to have enjoyed commensurate industrial relations. That said, the new approach appears likely to exacerbate the general situation rather than improve it, since the stability, which is a fundamental requirement of good industrial relations, will be reduced. However, if the new approach does deliver an improved railway which gets closer to realising the aspirations of its passengers, then industrial relations are very likely to improve from whatever the current base.


  From the evidence presented in this paper, it is concluded that the new approach is capable of improving the quality of service available to passengers, the key stakeholders in the railway, but that a prerequisite of success is a radical transformation of the SRA into a progressive, dynamic leader of the industry with vision not only of enhancements of the present network but also of its expansion to towns and communities not currently served. To this end, the SRA wil have to delegate responsibilities regionally and become a steward of both state and private sources of funding investment in the railway.

September 2001

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