Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by North East Combined Transport Activists' Roundtable (REN 03)


  1.  This memorandum is submitted by the North East Combined Transport Activists' Roundtable (NECTAR) in response to the Transport Sub-Committee's Press Notice 65/2001-02 issued on 9 May 2002. The memorandum is structured to respond firstly to the questions set out in the Notice and then to address the more general issues raised by the Sub-Committee's introduction to those questions.

Question 1: "Whether the existing franchisees provide satisfactory services, particularly in relation to safety, punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency of services?"

  2.  The local rail services in the north are of inadequate reliability and punctuality; inadequate because of a lack of staff, a lack of trains and a lack of diversionary routes and facilities as well as inadequate investment to provide modern, reliable infrastructure across the region. Punctuality is poor, even though parochial decisions favour local punctuality rather than the maintenance of the connections with other services, connections which are essential for the successful operation of an integrated rail network.

  3.  The quality of trains is poor with a heavy over-reliance on "Pacer" units; the quality of their presentation is too often also poor; their replacement is long overdue. The promised cascade of higher quality trains has not materialised and there is no good evidence that the SRA has used its franchising powers to effect any improvements at all in this area.

  4.  The timetables generally make inadequate provision for early and late services, and the frequency, improved in some areas by successful Rail Passenger Partnership bids, is generally inadequate to develop a thriving service. The Saturday night engineering possessions by Railtrack and its sub-contractors are far too long, too inflexible and inhibit the development of both charter and timetabled services.

  5.  Station quality is inadequate. Much has been done to document the situation; the failure of the subcontracting system to generate sufficient accountability and high enough standards has long been recognised. This area, in particular, gives a graphic demonstration of the inability of current management to deliver even very minor improvements, although the need for such improvements is not in doubt.

  6.  The service offered is disjointed; it is the opposite of integrated. Connecting services between local trains and between local and InterCity trains should be the lifeblood of a networked, integrated rail system but the reality is that making cash claims from other operating companies or Railtrack has become more important than delivering passengers to their destinations by the intended train.

  7.  Information provision at stations is exceedingly poor, in many cases non-existent. Public address systems at even major stations such as Newcastle upon Tyne are often incomprehensible. Marketing of the rail alternative is at best patchy.

  8.  Consultation by Arriva with its passengers is greatly improved but when did Railtrack or the SRA last face up to the fact that its real customers (never mind the contractual niceties) are passengers (and freight operators)? A programme of route by route consultations involving the SRA, the TOC, Railtrack and all user and supporting agencies would be of immense value in getting across the value of the rail network. A leaf should be taken from the Highways Agency book in this respect.

Question 2: "Plans for investment in the rail network in the region and whether they meet the needs of additional capacity and other improvements?"

  9.  Judged from the visible evidence, plans to meet the need for additional network capacity and other improvements are non-existent. Such plans as there are, appear to be driven by local authorities, often against seemingly determined opposition from the SRA and all take an unconscionable time to deliver. Existing routes such as the Durham Coast line which serves the major centres of population such as Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton and Middlesbrough are starved of investment and hence a million people are denied a realistic rail service. At the other extreme, sensible branch line projects such as the re-opening of the line from Alnmouth to Alnwick to provide direct access to mainline services, is faltering for want of less cash than is currently being spent by the Highways Agency from its own budget, to provide an extra carriageway for the A1 bypass around the same town.

  10.  The number of diversionary routes and lines is inadequate, resulting in inadequate substitute buses being used whenever there is a network or line problem. The SRA should be charged with ensuring that a progressively increasing proportion of disruptions is overcome by the use of alternative rail services, not by the use of buses. This may be a franchise requirement to ensure route familiarity, inter-company cooperation etc, as well as an investment requirement.

Question 3: "Influence of rail services on the economic and social development in the region?"

  11.  The Alnmouth/Alnwick branch mentioned above is a good example of the failure to invest in rail being a lost opportunity for the creation of new jobs. Not a vague hope that unspecified investment will somehow result in new jobs but an example of highly focused investment bringing very specific jobs to operate the branch and to support the tourism developments which the heritage aspect of the branch proposal would create. Sadly, there are numerous such lost opportunities across the North East specifically and the North generally

  12.  Car ownership in the North East is low but rising. It should be an objective of the SRA within the overall transport plan, not to reduce car ownership but to reduce the need for car use to make rail-appropriate journeys. At present, it appears to be part of the SRA agenda to ensure that the availability of rail services is marginalized. The only major rail initiative in the region since privatisation is Sunderland Direct, a project driven and led by the PTE.

  13.  The fact that towns of the size of Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stockton do not have InterCity quality rail services and new towns such as Killingworth, Peterlee and Washington do not have rail services at all, shows how far the opportunity for rail to contribute to the social and economic fabric of the region has been neglected. Many simple improvements such as a Newcastle/Middlesbrough direct service, an upgrade of the Durham coast line and the reopening of the Leamside line are actively promoted by others but the SRA seems determined to frustrate these initiatives. The new franchise specifications do not promote them and Rail Passenger Partnership bids are an insecure, inadequate alternative. All of these schemes would make major contributions to the well-being of the region.

  14.  In short, the lack of targeted investment in the railways of the region represents a lost opportunity for both economic development and increased social inclusion.

General issue 1: "The Government's and Strategic Rail Authority's commitment to improving rail services"

  15.  There is no apparent dynamic commitment to improvement; the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) have to be dragged to the act and are generally unsupportive of improvement initiatives. They do not take the lead in route assessments for example, of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne route or the routes listed above. All of these schemes are actively promoted by all the authorities in the region, none is being either led or driven by the SRA.

  16.  The lack of commitment is evident not only from the lack of projects but also from the poor stewardship of existing facilities, tolerated through its partner "Railtrack"; the quality of permanent way verges etc is deplorable, contrasting starkly with the quality of highway verges, and hence demonstrating where the Government and SRA priorities lie.

  17.  Seen from the North, the SRA remains low on vision and leadership, although some improvement is becoming detectable. In this respect, the SRA is very much a poor relation lagging far behind the aspirations and achievements of the Highways Agency as it champions the cause of the highway network. The lack of a northern office for the SRA has led to a lack of northern focus throughout its operation and is an omission which should be rectified with urgency.

  18.  Both the TransPennine and the Northern franchise renewals seem to be based on providing a minimum of service. The opportunity has not been taken to develop or expand the service or the network; there is now evidence that increased frequencies, for example, could be sustained and should be provided on many parts of the network but this opportunity is at risk of being lost.

  19.  Neither the Government nor the SRA appears to recognise the need to invest in and expand the rail network in order to achieve the overall transport targets relating to congestion and pollution. Investment in the SE of England may be essential but it must NOT be at the expense of the North. A modest funding switch from highways to rail would adequately meet the need of northern rail projects.

General issue 2: "The impact of the Strategic Rail Authority's approach to franchising in the region"

  20.  The SRA is far too insular and fails to recognise the benefit of consultation and engagement with those for whom the passenger railway is there, namely the passengers.

  21.  The franchising process is both too slow and too late. It has failed completely to recognise the reality of the circumstances in which it has extended existing franchises such as that let to Arriva Trains Northern Limited. Moreover, the SRA appears to abdicate all responsibility once a franchise has been let. One result is the continuing unimaginative use of the InterCity services on the ECML north of Newcastle; with consultation and imagination but negligible real cost the existing GNER and Virgin trains could be used to provide a good service between the towns in Northumberland as well as connecting these towns well to both Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh.

  22.  The franchise process has developed a financial structure in which it is profitable for the operating company not to operate trains, for example during the current spate of Arriva strikes. This deplorable state of affairs must be avoided in the proposed new franchises and with immediate effect, the SRA should be caused to engage with Arriva and its Unions to bring about a speedy resolution of the current disputes.

  23.  The involvement of the Passenger Transport Executives in the Northern franchise is a welcome development but the links between the SRA and the other civic authorities appear tenuous. In reality these authorities have amassed a wealth of data about rail travel and the SRA should be tasked with ensuring that all are involved in the franchise letting and management processes in a joint forum with the end users.

  24.  The separation of the TransPennine services from the other services in the North is incomprehensible to most observers, when the clear need is for more integrated operation. However, NECTAR accept that this die is now cast and do not wish to see yet further delay resulting from any change to these arrangements. There remains nevertheless a demand for an integrated, network approach in which the role of branches and roots is acknowledged as an essential feeder for the InterCity services of whatever brand. This demand must be met from within the new franchise structure, by the immediate provision of adequate services followed by a comprehensive programme of development and improvement.

  25.  This memorandum has been prepared by NECTAR to indicate key areas of concern about the current and planned future rail services in the north of England. Should further information be required on any of the issues raised, such information will be supplied gladly on request.

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