Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) (OPT 15)



  1.1  GNER welcomes the opportunity to respond to this inquiry. Overcrowding is an extremely important issue for GNER, which is seeking to respond to passenger demand by running still more services on the East Coast Main Line (ECML).

  1.2  GNER started operations in April 1996 after securing an initial seven year franchise to operate high-speed, long-distance passenger services on the ECML between London Kings Cross, the East Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East of England and Scotland.

  1.3  In accordance with the terms of reference for this inquiry, GNER has endeavoured to confine its evidence to services as far north as Berwick Upon Tweed. GNER serves a total of 24 stations in England, with passengers being principally generated from London Kings Cross, Peterborough, Grantham, Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds, York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle.

  1.4  GNER employs a total workforce of 3,100 people. The company has won multiple awards for its investments in training and in the development of its industry-leading approach to customer service.

  1.5  In January 2002, GNER was awarded a two-year franchise extension to April 2005, as part of a £100 million investment agreement with the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA). GNER has not received a Government grant since April 2001 and will not do so as part of the extended franchise.

  1.6  GNER has consistently been rated as the best long-distance Train Operating Company (TOC) in Britain, as evidenced in the SRA's six monthly National Passenger Surveys (NPS), and has always out-scored the industry average on all the parameters measured.


  2.1  GNER is the first to acknowledge that it inherited a relatively good infrastructure from British Rail. Nevertheless, British Rail had been forced through financial constraints to electrify and modernise the East Coast Main Line on the basis of modest numbers of trains and passengers.

  2.2  At the time of privatisation in 1996, the ECML Train Operating Unit of British Rail was running just over 80 trains per day, and was using its complete freedom on pricing to manage demand in accordance with the supply of seats.

  2.3  When GNER took over the franchise, three significant changes took place which were to drive the growth of passenger numbers.

  2.4  Firstly, GNER was committed as a business to growing passenger numbers. GNER immediately began a programme of improved service quality, incentives and discounts to win new passengers to the railways.

  2.5  Secondly, statutory fare caps in certain markets—such as season tickets—caused the real cost of rail travel to fall for many passengers.

  2.6  Thirdly, the sustained economic growth of the UK and the especially strong recovery in the north of England generated significant additional demand.

  2.7  The result of these changes was that passenger journeys soared to 15.9 million in the last full year prior to the Hatfield disaster of October 2000. In the year ended 5 January 2002, passenger journeys grew by 6.6% to 14.5 million.

  2.8  To cater for this growth, GNER now runs 124 trains per day. The majority of these continue to be provided through more efficient working of the existing "225" electric train fleet and a small number of diesel High Speed Trains (HSTs).

  2.9  GNER has supplemented its fleet in a way unique to the UK rail industry through the leasing of four Class 373/2 train sets from Eurostar (UK) Ltd., three of which are in daily operation. These have been providing an additional eleven weekday services between Leeds and London since June 2002, boosting service frequency on this important route to record levels. These "White Rose" services have proved to be extremely popular with passengers, especially as their large number of seats has considerably improved the journey experience of London-bound commuters from Newark, Grantham and Peterborough.

  2.10  In addition, under an agreement recently concluded with Angel Trains, an additional coach will be added to each of GNER's HST sets from the commencement of the winter 2003 timetable.

  2.11  Although GNER is predominantly a long-distance train operator for business and leisure travellers, its fast, frequent and high quality services have attracted a significant volume of commuters in the travel-to-work areas of Doncaster-Wakefield-Leeds and York-Darlington-Durham-Newcastle. This contributes to very high loadings at peak times.

  2.12  As is to emphasise this point, Regional Planning Guidance for the North East to 2016 (RPG1), launched by the Government on 20 November 2002, specifically identifies overcrowding on the ECML, especially on trains north of Newcastle, as a significant problem.

  2.13  Very high loadings are not a problem exclusively for Standard Class passengers. GNER competes vigorously with the airlines and the private car for business travel through comfort, speed, convenience and quality of customer service. Demand for First Class travel is, therefore, very high, in particular during the morning peak approaching London—when many business travellers wish to arrive at the same time as commuters—and in the early evening leaving London, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. The many MPs who travel between London and their constituencies by GNER will be well aware of this.

  2.14  The Committee's terms of reference for this inquiry quite rightly refer to the potential consequences of overcrowding for safety. Safety has always been GNER's absolute priority, which has been recognised by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) with a Gold Award this year, and by GNER's achievement of Level 7 status in the International Safety Rating Scheme (ISRS). GNER was one of the first TOCs to join the "CIRAS" confidential reporting system, prior to its national roll-out.

  2.15  Despite these efforts, the company, its passengers and its employees have felt the consequences of two horrific accidents—Hatfield and Great Heck—caused by conditions outside the control of GNER.

  2.16  Overcrowding was not identified as a factor contributing to the deaths or injuries incurred in either of these tragic events. A report by the Health & Safety Executive in 1999 ("Implications of overcrowding on railways") states that "there is no evidence to suggest that overcrowding per se is a safety issue." This supported the findings of the 1989 report into the Clapham Junction Railway Accident where the "unchallenged evidence" of an "eminent pathologist" was "that the severity of injury, or the risk of fatality, was no greater for standing than seated passengers." The report went on: "Had the trains been overloaded, those passengers having to stand as a result would not have been placed at any greater risk than those seated."

  2.17  There is, however, never room for complacency with safety. GNER is investing heavily on two counts to reduce further the risk of injuries to its passengers and employees. Firstly, through the introduction of technology and training methods designed to reduce the likelihood of accidents caused by Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs). Secondly, through the complete refurbishment of the Mark 4 "225" rolling stock fleet to bring the vehicles up to modern standards.

  2.18  The long term solution to the safety issue is to increase GNER's capacity to move passengers in comfort, a means for achieving which is set out later in this paper.


  3.1  With GNER's services already very busy, service disruption can cause the problem of overcrowding to escalate dramatically.

  3.2  GNER's train performance for much of 2002 has been poor, largely as a result of Anglo-Scottish services (which call at stations in England) being delayed due to linespeed restrictions at Dolphinstone, south of Edinburgh.

  3.3  At times of disruption, passengers will understandably wish to board the first available train, rather than the one which they perhaps intended to use or the one on which they had booked a seat. Indeed, in such circumstances GNER has in the past frequently suspended seat reservations and ticket restrictions in order simply to move as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

  3.4  Whilst the short term amelioration of delay in this way may be acceptable, the experience of the passenger is likely to alienate him or her from using the train again, especially if the user is not a regular rail traveller.

  3.5  The short term objective, therefore, must be to improve performance and service reliability sufficiently so as to reduce the incidence of overcrowding.

  3.6  As part of its £100 million investment over the next three years, GNER (with train manufacturers and other rail partners) is working hard to improve the reliability of its rolling stock. The Class 91 electric locomotive refurbishment programme has already reduced delay minutes due to failed locomotives from 43,000 minutes in 1998 to 29,000 minutes in 2000, and further progress is being made. In addition, improved reliability is already resulting from a major re-engineering programme of the HST power cars.

  3.7  Around three quarters of delays to GNER services are caused by other TOCs or by infrastructure problems. GNER is working closely with Network Rail to eliminate as many as possible of the latter.


  4.1  GNER does not anticipate that any of the factors which have caused the growth of its ridership in recent years are likely to subside.

  4.2  GNER believes in encouraging rail travel, and will not be embarking on a programme of pricing its customers off of its services. Indeed, to attempt to do so would make the business as a whole more vulnerable to competition from low-cost airlines and the private car.

  4.3  Research undertaken for GNER has found that rail is consistently the cheapest means of travelling to London from Edinburgh, Newcastle or Leeds. This is an important commercial advantage for GNER which the company will seek to maintain.

  4.4  This is not to say that the company will allow its fare structure to fossilise. GNER will continue to develop its yield management techniques, learning from the experiences of the airline industry.

  4.5  On 28 November 2002, GNER announced the appointment of Manugistics, a world leading company in the field, to develop information technology-based techniques designed optimise seat availability and charge the right fare for each journey. GNER is the first passenger rail company in the world to adopt such an approach.

  4.6  GNER is a profitable business and makes no apology for this. In order to operate without public subsidy, GNER must demonstrate a fair rate of return to its parent company and to its shareholders. A solid financial performance is also the best way for GNER to continue to pay competitive salaries to key employees.

  4.7  GNER's extended franchise agreement has some of the characteristics of a public-private partnership, including as it does a unique profit share arrangement with the SRA. Any profits generated by GNER beyond a specified return on sales are specifically reinvested into the ECML, further to improve reliability and quality for passengers.

  4.8  GNER believes that the trend for more people to commute to London across longer distances will continue, due to two main factors: high London house prices which are continuing to rise faster than in other parts of the UK; and the relatively low cost of commuting where season ticket prices are pegged to RPI minus 1%.

  4.9  With all of the drivers for passenger growth still in place, GNER believes that a significant increase in its capacity is required. Until 2001, it was the policy of the SRA to secure a step change in the capacity of the ECML by means of a major upgrade of the infrastructure, to the benefit of all passenger and freight operators using the route. For a variety of reasons, there is little prospect of the upgrade proceeding in the foreseeable future.

  4.10  A significant new initiative on rolling stock will be required in any case as a result of GNER's leased Class 373/2 trains having to be returned to Eurostar (UK) Ltd in 2007 to coincide with the completion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL). In addition, GNER's small fleet of diesel HSTs will soon be approaching the end of its operational life.

  4.11  Therefore, GNER has been developing an initiative to enable additional capacity to be delivered through the more imaginative use of existing capacity and the procurement of new rolling stock.

  4.12  The SRA recently undertook a consultation exercise on the possible future use of main London termini by exclusive operators, essentially combining long distance and local trains into integrated businesses. GNER believes that such an arrangement could provide significant capacity benefits at London Kings Cross. GNER would ask whether it is sensible for a lightly-loaded four-car suburban train to take a path which could be utilised by a busy 9-coach long distance train?

  4.13  Meanwhile, GNER has been examining the possible acquisition of up to 12 new trains, providing much-needed extra seating capacity whilst replacing the Class 373/2 units and the HSTs. A new fleet of GNER trains could be diesel-powered with a "go anywhere" capability, although future fleet options are still being assessed. One of the attractions of a diesel fleet is that destinations currently not served by GNER could be added to the network, enabling the refurbished fleet of electric trains to be used more effectively between the core destinations where overcrowding is most severe.

  4.14  GNER has previously explained to the Committee the long lead time required for the delivery of new rolling stock—60 months according to the manufacturers. The company has been examining with the SRA the possibility of extending its franchise by four further years to 2009 to enable the new train fleet to be procured.

December 2002

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