Memorandum by North East Combined Transport
Activists' Roundtable (REN 03)
RAIL SERVICES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
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
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.