Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Warrington Borough Council (REN 09)



  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 West region.


  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.

The Timetable

  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.

The Trains

  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 performers.

  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 other places.

  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 increment.

  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:

Long Distance:

every 60 or 30 minutes

Inter Regional:

every 30 or 15 minutes


every 30 or 15 minutes, or more frequently where useful.

  16.  The impact of applying these standards to Warrington's rail services can be judged from the following table.

Current Position
Ideal Position

60 mins.
30 mins.
120 mins.
60 mins.
120 mins.
60 mins.
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.
60 mins.
60 mins.
30 mins.
Wigan, Preston etc
60 mins.
30 mins
15 mins.
15 mins.
20 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.


Investment Plans

  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 disappointment.


  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 is concerned.

  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 project review.

  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.


Regional Planning

  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 scheme.

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 to see.

    —  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 economy.

    —  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.

Virgin Fares

  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 the Treasury.

  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 situation.

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