Memorandum by Warrington Borough Council
RAIL SERVICES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
1. The three questions below have been asked:
Whether the existing franchises provide
satisfactory services, particularly in relation to safety, punctuality,
reliability comfort and frequency of services.
What plans are there for investment
in the rail network in the region and whether they meet the needs
of additional network capacity and other improvements.
What is the influence of rail services
on the economic and social development of the region.
2. These questions are posed to assess the
Government's and SRA's commitment to improving rail services and
the SRA's approach to franchising in the region. The answers are
informed by the local experience of the Warrington area and North
3. The existing franchises provide a barely
satisfactory service performance against most of the criteria
mentioned. Thankfully there have been no catastrophic accidents
on the regional network to date: more often however, operational
performance falls below the standards laid down and has done so
ever since the franchises were originally let.
4. Punctuality and reliability may be judged
through official statistics and they are characteristically poor
and maybe improving, but the figures do not tell the whole story.
Two local examples are offered in evidence.
5. In the case of Warrington, late running
north and south Trans Pennine services are occasionally terminated
at Warrington Central instead of running through to Liverpool.
Punctuality may improve as a result, but the resulting cancellations
do nothing to help intending passengers.
6. Points north of Crewe on the west coast
main line are included in the Virgin West Coast North West and
Scottish service groups and the reported performance of both is
poor. The same route is also served by Virgin Cross Country, whose
performance is even worse. Local services are usually more reliable
than long distance, but there are no such services on the northern
section of the west coast line, so local travellers face disproportionate
delays as a result of their dependence on Virgin Trains.
7. Reliability and punctuality problems
can be concentrated at particular points on the network. In this
region, Manchester Piccadilly and the West Coast corridor must
lead the list of hot spot locations.
8. The former Secretary of State announced
that "comfort" is to be judged in terms of rolling stock
age. This is misleading, as overcrowding levels are the truest
test of comfort and here, all operators in the region are poor
9. Local services are normally the preserve
of two car units, when there are often three and four car numbers
of passengers are to be carried. Two main expressions of the problem
are as follows:
Peak periods across the network.
A good local example is that of Manchester bound trains on the
CLC line being full by Widnes: doubtless the same sort of problem
is found all over the network.
Main interchange points such as Crewe,
Preston or Chester. Passengers alighting from a long distance
train connecting with local trains will usually face a two car
unit with a complement of passengers already aboard. The new Voyager
network will tend to exacerbate such problems at Birmingham and
10. There are far too many Pacer units in
this region. They are too small for use in most situations but
regularly find themselves used on busy services. More alarmingly,
the proposed "tram train" concept is merely an updated
version, whose advent risks continuing the problem of using too-small
trains into the future.
11. Virgin Voyagers of four cars are being
used to replace seven car sets, and are being run at doubled frequencies.
One does not need much imagination to see what will happen as
a result of this strategy. Virgin trains are clearly aware of
the issue and run coupled units to cope with certain peaks in
demand, although they clearly cannot do this for every service
that needs strengthening.
12. It remains to be seen whether the Virgin
West Coast Pendolino fleet has sufficient capacity for the demand
that may arise from their introduction. The company announced
they were looking to double carryings as a headline target, but
it seems doubtful that services could cope with such a large growth
13. To answer the Committee's question directly,
the age of the train is less of a problem than the general lack
of rolling stock to cope with the demand on offer. As a simple
rule of thumb, it is contended that in general all trains serving
local demand need to be twice as long as they currently are.
14. Trains frequency is important, as having
useable minimum frequencies is the key to making the rail network
convenient to use. Connectional opportunities are more easily
maintained in the face of difficulties, instead of the passengers
experiencing "cascade" failure when things go wrong.
The national experience of major frequency enhancements was last
felt on the "regional railways" network in the late
1980s-early 90s, with significant traffic generation effects.
The creation of the Virgin Voyager network will undoubtedly have
a similar effect and even though more trains and traffic are a
"good thing" additional capacity will be demanded of
the network if reliability is to be maintained.
15. On the basis of our experience, the
following are suggested as the ideal frequencies for different
types of train service in the region:
every 60 or 30 minutes
every 30 or 15 minutes
every 30 or 15 minutes, or more frequently where
16. The impact of applying these standards
to Warrington's rail services can be judged from the following
|West Country||120 mins.
||120 or 60 mins.|
|Leeds, York etc ||60 mins.
||60 or 30 mins.|
|Sheffield, Nottingham etc||60 mins.
||60 or 30 mins.|
|North Wales||60 mins.
|Wigan, Preston etc||60 mins.
||15 mins. minimum|
17. Meeting the ideal standard would require some significant
improvements, in turn demanding network capacity expansion. This
is sufficient to contend that as a rule of thumb, frequencies
should be doubled compared to the present level.
18. Apart from the west coast upgrade, the SRA Strategic
Plan envisages no significant investment proposals in the region
or in the north generally until post 2010. This strategy does
not offer any additional capacity and therefore does not meet
any demands for additional rail services. Neither does the document
help prepare the ground so that a flying start could be made in
2010. For these reasons, the strategy is considered a serious
19. The way in which franchising has been carried out
appears unimaginative and not calculated to maximise opportunities
for funding improvements. The persistent use of short franchise
terms is noted, whereas the private sector needs long term security
to raise funds for significant investment particularly where infrastructure
20. It was feared last year that there would not be enough
resources to maintain even the existing network, hence the alarm
whenever "changes to Passenger Service Requirements",
"capacity utilisation studies", "making better
use of the network" and the like are mentioned by the SRA
or government sources.
The Manchester Hub
21. The main capacity issue that the SRA needs to grasp
(in the whole of the north it is ventured) is that of the Manchester
Hub. Several interpretations of what this is have been aired,
but to this authority it is clear there is only one location,
the immediate environs of Piccadilly station, and only one acceptable
solution to the constraints at that location, the Ardwick flyover
and additional local platforms at Piccadilly "local"
station. The SRA last year was in denial of both the need for
these schemes or a strategy to support their provision.
22. The solution would hardly be a cheap project, but
the alternatives do not bear thinking about. Consider the following:
There has never been any investment to increase
rail capacity in Central Manchester since the day the current
network was completed in the late 19th century.
Regional demand for rail travel has risen in recent
years and the trend is not likely to reverse, due to insoluble
highway congestion problems.
What happens at the Manchester Hub effects a huge
area, from Holyhead to Norwich and from Glasgow to the south coast.
Rail is a key element in the transport strategies
for Greater Manchester and the wider region and Piccadilly is
the key to the network. Without a solution, many regional and
local transport strategies will have serious constraints imposed
on them due to rail capacity problems.
The whole issue has been under debate for years,
with no solution in sight even now.
The way forward should have been the driving force
behind replacement franchising, but the SRA was unable to devise
a strategy all stakeholders could agree with, and has so far failed
to let any franchises either.
The West Coast
23. The West Coast Main Line upgrade itself facilitates
selective increases in Virgin Trains frequencies in the region,
but no provision has been made for any other operations, either
additional local passenger or freight services. The legitimate
demands of these users will not be met without specific consideration,
but this so far seems to be missing. It is feared that the west
coast project review will in fact lead to pressure for cuts. For
passenger services, this could mean the removal of the local tier
(where it exists), the failure to develop such a tier even where
needs are self-evident and finally, the reinforcement of Virgin
Trains' de facto monopoly of services on this route.
Shades of Dr Beeching
24. The man himself may not be with us any more but his
ghost must still haunt meetings on rail policy and funding allocations.
It is revealing that Richard Bowker was recently prompted to deny
that a Mk2 version of the 1960s rail capacity cull was about to
happen again, but it remains a very real threat. Ask the residents
of Northampton: this town may not be in the north, but has been
treated poorly by the side effects of the West Coast upgrade project.
The same is feared north of Rugby as an outcome of the current
25. As far as Warrington is concerned, Northampton's
fate was only narrowly avoided during the Trans Pennine Express
franchising exercise and at the present time, it is not clear
whether the SRA would still wish to pursue such a course. The
absence of a long-term investment strategy for the region was,
ironically, a blessing in this respect.
26. Another branch of the cuts agenda has emerged in
respect of the Holyhead-Birmingham service of First North Western,
due to a lack of one path every two hours between Crewe and Stafford.
Is the constraint real or are Virgin Trains trying to kill off
perceived competition? The SRA have said nothing and one fears
the worst for this service.
27. The development strategy for the region focuses attention
on existing urban areas, particularly the main conurbations. In
order that such development can be pursued along sustainable principles,
greater investment in the rail mode will inevitably be needed.
28. The alternative is to concede to the continuing pressure
for green field developments around major towns and cities and
along main interurban highway corridors. This is hardly a sensible
approach and does not accord with national policy guidance. It
would produce greater highway congestion within any given period
of time. As the main highways in the Mersey Belt area are already
high "traffic stress" areas, particularly the Highways
Agency network, failure to develop the rail infrastructure will
not assist economic development or individual quality of life
in the region.
29. Regional transport strategy is determined by both
regeneration needs, where better transport is needed to improve
access to the subject areas and for those places of burgeoning
development, where transport schemes supporting sustainable access
are needed to maintain economic viability. South Liverpool is
a good example of the former, supported through Merseytravel's
Allerton Interchange proposal. Warrington is a good example of
the latter exemplified by the Chapelford station proposal. Unfortunately,
line capacity constraints are jeopardising the viability of the
The Demand Context
30. In the context of local rail operations, demand growth
overshadows current and planned rail service provision on the
main corridors. The existing Trans Pennine Express (TPE) service
experienced growth of some 10% per year until the rail industry's
recent troubles, so assuming the operator and infrastructure could
cope, this equates to 200% more traffic after 20 years. Other,
local services in the Mersey Belt are experiencing growth at half
the TPE rate, a mere doubling of traffic volumes at the end of
a 20 year period.
31. The growth rate for highway movements tends to fall
into the 2-3% per year range, although an unsustainably higher
rate of 11% was detected in parts of peripheral Warrington over
the 1999-2001 period.
32. The Greater Manchester Strategic Rail Study focused
on the need for the rail infrastructure to be able to cope with
50% more traffic (passenger km) by 2010. This objective may not
prove to be very useful or realistic as:
Even though the rail forecast extrapolates trend
growth, any significant modal shift from the car would produce
well above trend growth for rail. There has been no regional multi
modal analysis to confirm the figures, which one would expect
New and/or improved rail services, if they could
be introduced, are likely to generate completely new business
for the rail companies than current services are able to.
Most importantly, there could be 50% additional
demand there already, merely being suppressed by the inability
of the rail system to provide anything better.
33. It is often argued that public transport in general
and rail in particular could never carry enough traffic to make
a worthwhile difference to road traffic conditions. Some obvious
responses to this contention are given below:
Rail based transport is the only practical means
of dealing with short to medium distance commuter flows and heavy
urban flows anywhere. This means conventional rail in the majority
of cases, exactly how London and the South East functions as an
Rail capacity only needs to expand sufficient
to take the edge off demand growth to make a difference, rather
than supporting wholesale modal shifts.
The creation of choice depends on spare rail capacity
being made available compared to what rail provides today, and
not with reference to how many vehicles are on the road.
The less effective that improvements to local
public transport, walking, cycling and new planning guidance are,
the greater the future expenditure on rail (and road) will need
to be. The self-defeating nature of ill-considered road capacity
expansion is well understood these days: it just induces more
traffic onto the highway network, leading to more pressure on
the alternatives downstream.
Within urban regions, rail expenditure is not
a case of subsidising well-off travellers at the expense of tackling
social exclusion. A better comparison would be with the London
Underground, an essential means of mobility for the entire community.
33. In the face of this type of growth and the degree
of constraint felt within the current rail system, there is clearly
a major rail capacity barrier to be overcome in the course of
the new franchises in the north of England. It is highly likely
that there will be a need for concomitant major revisions to the
structure and scale of rail funding in the 2006-16 period. There
is no sign that the SRA accepts this at the present time.
34. The level of fares is not generally a major issue
in the region, with one major exception in the form of the high
rates charged by Virgin Trains. The Warrington-London standard
return is currently £153 and Saver tickets are not valid
on any train arriving in London before 13:03. It is cheaper to
travel south on a late train a day early and stay in a hotel in
London to attend a morning meeting, rather than travelling out
and back in a day. There are clearly both economic and social
costs and benefits arising from this charging policy: it is less
clear that the operator takes any credit by forcing users to consider
such travel plans.
35. High long distance fares are mirrored where Virgin
controls local fares. Compare these similar local journeys. Chester-Liverpool
is £3.30 (Arriva and Merseytravel), Chester-Warrington is
£6.75 (First North Western), Warrington-Preston is £9.50
(Virgin Trains). Whatever one may think about the cost of business
travel, it does seem that the local fares are calculated to discourage
local rail travel. This is not the way to promote social inclusion.
The Terms of Reference
36. It is encouraging that the Committee finds aspects
of the rail transport needs of "the North" worthy of
special attention. Many authorities in the north feel that the
needs of the region have not been fairly dealt with and the lack
of much content in the Strategic Plan appears to provide evidence
of that deficiency.
37. An unfortunate sub-theme to the above comments is
the perennial suspicion in which the SRA is held. Matters may
be improving, but the organisation still appears to be very London-centric
in nature. Now that a locally-based representative has been ceded
to Scotland, perhaps the North of England can look forward to
the day when an area team based in the region is set up. It would
be logical, seeing as the Trans Pennine corridor on its own has
a population equivalent to Greater London's, or put another way,
double that of Scotland in its entirety.
38. On the matter of resources allocated for rail, a
modern paraphrase of one of Sir Peter Parker's aphorisms would
have it that the SRA, the DfT, Network Rail et al. are
all entirely transparent. One can see straight through them to
39. It remains to be seen whether there is a national
desire to support a higher quantity and quality of rail services
in the north of England. On the evidence to date, the answer would
seem to be more "no" than "yes".
40. Thankfully not all the goodwill amongst regional
stakeholders has drained away as a result of the problems being
faced by the rail industry. The importance of the railway in supporting
local life is high and authorities would much prefer to see a
positive agenda to develop the network emerging from the current