Memorandum by Railfuture (REN 16)
RAIL SERVICES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
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,
1. THE ADEQUACY
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 LeedsLancaster
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.
3. THE COMMITMENT
AND SRA TO
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.
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. THE SRA'S
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.
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
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
. 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
. 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