Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Railfuture (REN 16)


  This Memorandum of Evidence to the Transport Sub-Committee from Railfuture (the Railway Development Society) is based on comments from the four branches covering the North of England franchise areas (Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, North-East, North-West).


  The three regional franchises are currently held by Arriva Trains (North-East and Merseyrail) and First North-Western. All are in the process of refranchising, with new operators expected to take over during 2003.

  1.1  In our view none of the incumbent operators provide adequate or satisfactory services. Rolling stock is still poor, with over-reliance on "Pacer" diesel units throughout the region giving an impression of "bargain basement" rail. These units offer a poor standard of comfort and fail to attract people out of cars. New stock is often delayed and equally often unreliable (eg Alstom 175 diesel units in the NW), and cascaded stock either does not materialise as promised or is also delayed (eg ex-Virgin class 158 diesel units). There is a dire need for new rolling stock throughout the region if reliability is to be improved and overcrowding eliminated.

  1.2  Performance is further undermined by staff shortages and inadequate infrastructure. Diversionary routes are few and far between, with bus substitution routinely used in crises even when alternative routes do exist. Existing infrastructure suffers from insufficient investment to ensure a modem reliable service, and many regional routes are seen as low priority for available funds. Engineering possessions too often impinge on busy periods, especially at holiday times. Pontefract has endured replacement buses for many months due to staff shortages. Staff morale, never high, has reached rock bottom with the present industrial dispute, the roots of which lie in the fragmentation of the industry, the loss of recognised career structures and cost-cutting in order to undercut rival bidders. Arriva rail passengers are not even offered use of Arriva buses on strike days!

  1.3  Service frequencies often leave much to be desired, especially at marginal times such as evenings, Sundays and early morning. Rural routes such as Leeds—Lancaster and the Whitby line are particularly poorly served, but many routes in less remote areas such as the Manchester / Liverpool / Preston triangle have only hourly services and some are seriously overcrowded at peak periods (eg Bolton-Manchester). Services to resorts such as Scarborough or Windermere are overcrowded in summer months. Some lines languish under what can only be described as token services, including Gainsborough-Brigg, Doncaster-Selby, Knottingley-Goole, Sheffield-Pontefract-York and Stockport-Stalybridge. Secondary routes serving major centres on the Cumbria and Durham coasts do not have the level of service needed by these deprived areas. Where the demands of inter-city and local services clash, the former invariably takes priority, the local service on the East Coast main line north of Newcastle being a classic example of the virtually unusable service that results, for want of a bit of imagination and a modicum of new infrastructure.

  1.4  The travelling environment, on and off the trains, is still depressing and unattractive despite some high profile work at major stations in Manchester and Leeds. Cleanliness, especially in evenings and weekends, is wanting, both on trains and stations. Trackside refuse is indicative of a shoddy railway. Passenger information is patchy and often indecipherable even at major stations and largely absent at minor stations. It too often disintegrates precisely when it is most needed during major disruption. Information in advance of timetable changes is difficult to get. Queuing times in Travel Centres (especially Leeds) are unacceptable and at times prohibitive. Connections, in particular between different operators, remain a lottery; passengers having to choose between extended travel times or high risk connections.

  1.5  Safety however is generally good, with few serious accidents in the region and "SPADs" declining. We remain conscious of the excellent safety record of railways in comparison to other modes of transport.


  2.1  Key constraints on capacity in the region must be addressed if the Government's targets for increasing rail traffic and reducing overcrowding are to stand a chance of being met. One major bottleneck, Leeds, has now been tackled. Others remain in Manchester; the "throat" on the south side of the city centre and most of all, the inadequate number of through platforms at Piccadilly. Other bottlenecks outside the region have similar effects within the region: the Welwyn tunnel and viaduct bottleneck on the East Coast main line constrains the development of new services to Yorkshire and the North-East. The capacity problems on the approaches to New Street in Birmingham impinge on Cross-Country services to all parts of the north and indeed the whole of the country. The failure to safeguard the necessary land for these two improvements (and in particular a missed opportunity in Birmingham a couple of years ago) indicates a scandalous lack of forward planning. The slow progress on upgrading the West Coast main line continues to lead to inferior inter-city services to the North-West in general, and the same is true to a lesser degree on the East Coast. Grade separated junctions are needed at key points in the region, including Doncaster, Euxton (south of Preston), the approaches to Manchester Piccadilly, and (outside the region) at Hitchin on the East Coast, and Nuneaton and Colwich on the West Coast main lines.

  2.2  Electrification has ground to a halt in the north (as elsewhere) since privatisation, as nobody in the industry from the Government and the SRA downwards seems any longer to recognise either the operational or environmental advantages it offers. Two key electrification schemes head the list in the north: Manchester-Preston-Blackpool and the core North Trans-Pennine route (Liverpool-Manchester- Leeds-York) linking four existing electrified areas. These two schemes, together with some local and feeder links, would enable many services, currently run by diesel stock "under the wires" for much of their routes, to be electrically operated.

  2.3  Numerous other proposals exist for additional capacity on disused or freight-only routes such as the Leamside line (Stockton-Ferryhill-Pelaw), for filling gaps in the passenger network by reinstated services (eg Clitheroe-Hellifield, or Newcastle-Ashington) or reinstating lost lines such as Malton-Pickering and Skipton-Colne, or for completely new links such as the western link to Manchester Airport. Others could be designed to provide both passenger and more freight capacity, such as restoration of the Woodhead or Peak Forest routes. New or reopened station proposals abound, some to serve places as large as Washington and Peterlee new towns.[1]


  3.1  Many of the above schemes are promoted or supported by local authorities, among which PTEs have been the most successful in the past, reflecting their greater powers in transport planning, powers which are urgently needed in non-metropolitan areas. Multi-modal studies have endorsed many of these proposals, and come up with others, but few if any of them have been endorsed in either the SRA Strategic Plan or indeed in past Railtrack Network Management Statements except, if at all, as long-term aspirations.[2] Would that either Railtrack or the SRA were to be as proactive as the Highways Agency? Our North-East branch points out that the cost of dualling the Alnwick bypass exceeds that of the proposed restoration of the rail branch line from Alnmouth, but only the road project is being implemented.

  3.2  There seems to be a lack of support from both government and SRA for local authority initiatives except through limited "partnership" funds, and progress is hampered by the need to secure agreement among the disparate parts of the industry, with Railtrack in particular often notably disinterested. Initiatives from within the industry tend therefore to be confined to new services that can be accommodated within existing infrastructure. Short franchises or franchise extensions (of five years or less) are not conducive to long-term investment planning. There is a need for more dialogue, especially between the SRA and local authorities, so that proposals can be assessed, prioritised and programmed. The SRA ought to take the lead in these matters.

  3.3  The SRA Strategic Plan has been widely criticised for concentrating investment in the south east. We recognise that some of the most severe problems are in the South-East, and that some infrastructure schemes in London will benefit the rest of the country, for example by making cross-London journeys easier and by freeing capacity for long-distance services. The suspicion is that the real reason for the policy is to achieve a quick and easy impact on patronage levels by investing in the country's busiest commuter area. If so it is a travesty of objective planning, and illustrates the pitfalls of government by arbitrary targets. The SRA also points out that the regions receive a disproportionate amount of revenue support ("subsidy"), but a distinction needs to be made between revenue support and capital investment, where the opposite seems to be the case.


  4.1  When it comes to franchising policy, some of the SRA decisions seem highly questionable. The most controversial policy decision affecting the north is the redrawing of the franchise map to create a Trans-Pennine franchise and a residual Northern franchise. This effectively replaces the vertical split down the Pennines by a horizontal split which creams off the most commercially attractive routes from both areas into one unit, leaving a rag-bag of separate urban networks in PTE areas and rump rural routes with little overall cohesion. Areas like Humberside and Cumbria will be particularly out on a limb, and the flexibility to redeploy resources locally will be lost as the number of franchisees on corridors like South Trans-Pennine is increased. If it makes sense to combine franchises in the South-East to achieve better use of resources and available capacity in London termini (which is debatable), why does this principle not apply equally in major provincial centres like Leeds and Manchester? The logic of this policy would have been one unified regional franchise for the whole of the North. an outcome which virtually everyone in the regions would have preferred, and which could yet be achieved if both franchises were awarded to the same bidder (even if this offends against spurious notions of competition).

  4.2  By the same token, whilst the delegation of franchising powers for Merseyrail to Merseyside PTA has much to be said for it, we do have some concern that this will further fossilise the present boundaries of this franchise and thus put additional obstacles in the way of extension of electrification beyond the present rather illogical outer limits at Ormskirk, Kirkby, and Ellesmere Port.[3] The logic of an integrated network suggests that lines radiating as far as Preston, Wigan and Wrexham, as well as local services out of Lime Street, ought to be included.

  4.3  In general the SRA approach to franchising throughout the country does not seem to encourage imaginative bids from companies keen to develop long-term investment proposals. We appreciate that the need to create a "level playing field" has led the SRA to require bids to a strictly defined PSR without such creative add-ons, but this has led to a minimalist approach to bidding which stifles any positive thinking. Some way of giving credit for plans beyond the minimal PSR ought to be found. In this region the proposal from one bidder to reopen the Woodhead route has been a casualty of this approach, and bidders with such proposals do not seem to have been successful in refranchising bids in other parts of the country so far.

  4.4  Whilst the effort put into public consultation (belatedly) by the current bidders for the two northern franchises is welcome and has been productive, nevertheless such consultation remains the exception. The SPA rarely consults beyond statutory bodies such as PTEs, and Railtrack does not seem to regard passengers (or freight forwarders) as stakeholders at all. Consultations involving all parties including user groups should take place on a regular basis, route by route (perhaps under the auspices of the Rail Passengers' Committees), not just when franchises come up for renewal. This requirement should be built into the franchise specifications and network licenses.


  5.1  Local authorities, especially in metropolitan (PTE) districts have taken the lead in bringing forward rail schemes in areas of economic deprivation or declining industries such as mining. In this region examples include the Dearne Valley local service between Leeds and Sheffield, new stations in Rotherham and Doncaster, the Wakefield-Pontefract line, electrification to Bradford, and extension of the Tyne & Wear Metro to Sunderland. Many of these were undertaken with the help of ERDF funds, to provide residents of these districts with access to new employment opportunities outside their home areas. Examples of similar projects in non-metropolitan areas across the country include restored rail services to places like Aberdare and Maesteg in South Wales, Bathgate in Scotland, Clitheroe, Cannock, Mansfield.

  5.2  But the standard of service to many depressed areas still leaves much to be desired, even where they never lost their service. The poor state of services on the Cumbrian Coast (serving Barrow in Furness and the West Cumbria towns), and on the Durham Coast (serving Sunderland, Hartlepool and the Teesside conurbation) has already been mentioned. Others such as Ashington in Northumberland still await a restored rail service. Light rail also has a part to play, as illustrated not just at Sunderland but also in the Trafford Park-Salford Quays area of Manchester. Railfuture has argued the case in more detail for rail having a role in combating social exclusion, in a response to a consultation by the Social Exclusion Unit of the Cabinet Office.

Mike Crowhurst

Railfuture Joint Policy Officer

1   . Railfuture's Evidence to the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Urban Affairs Sub-Committee: New Towns-their problems and future. New towns without direct rail links to the nearest major centre; notes on Washington & Peterlee and shortcomings of rail services to other New Towns. Back

2   . Railfuture's Evidence to the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Select Committee. HC558-lI-Ev 234, 10 Year Plan for Transport-Appendix 1, South East Manchester Multi Modal Study Area-The A6 Corridor. Back

3   . Railfuture's Evidence to the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Select Committee, HC558-II-Ev235, 10 Year Plan for Transport-Appendix 1, Liverpool Merseyrail to Merseyrail Metro Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 11 July 2003