Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Passengers in the North East (REN 17)

RAIL SERVICES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  This response has been prepared on behalf of the North East Branch of the Railway Development Society, Coastliners (Sunderland to Middlesbrough line), the Saltburn Line User Group and the Tyne Valley Rail Users' Group. The members of each of these organisations are people who use and are interested in the railways locally and regionally.

  1.2  The press notice announcing the inquiry implies five questions, the last three being explicit in the notice. These questions will be answered in turn, but before doing so we advance two propositions that appear to us to be crucial:

  1.3  First, any genuine attempt to tempt motorists from their cars requires a substantial improvement in the quality of local public transport. Existing rail services are well placed to contribute to the role of public transport, and relatively small amounts of new infrastructure (identified below and minor in scale compared with proposed new road schemes) can have a major impact.

  1.4  The North East has the lowest rate of car ownership, but the most rapidly growing. There are problems of peak time congestion, for example on the A1 at Gateshead MetroCentre, while many rural villages report serious concern at the weight, volume and speed of through traffic.

  1.5  There is a widespread recognition that measures to curb the continuing growth of road traffic are urgently required. The proposed "sticks" of congestion and workplace car park charging are unlikely to widely implemented and will not appear for many years to come. This leaves the only "carrot" of improved public transport. Travellers are rational people, and will only use public transport if it is reliable, comfortable and cost effective. This is very obviously not true at present.

  1.6  Second, the large pot of Rail Passenger Partnership money proposed in the Strategic Rail Authority's Strategic Agenda, welcome though it is, is no substitute for properly specified Northern and Transpennine Express franchises. The Northern franchise in particular, because it is intended to run for 15 years, provides an opportunity to design a quality passenger rail service that will be attractive to those who currently drive.

2.  THE GOVERNMENT'S AND STRATEGIC RAIL AUTHORITY'S COMMITMENT TO IMPROVING RAIL SERVICES?

  2.1  There is no perceptible dynamic commitment to improvement. The SRA have to be dragged to the act and are generally unsupportive of improvement initiatives. They do not take the lead in route assessments; as an example, the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne re-opening, supported by all authorities in the region, is being neither led nor driven by the SRA.

  2.2  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. For example, the quality of permanent way verges, and the amount of graffiti on trackside structures and equipment is deplorable, contrasting starkly with the quality of highway verges. This is a stark demonstration of where Government and SRA priorities lie.

  2.3  Seen from the North, the SRA remains low on vision and leadership, although some improvement is becoming apparent. In this respect, the SRA lags far behind the aspirations and achievements of the Highways Agency as it champions the cause of the highway network. The absence of a northern office for the SRA has led to a lack of northern focus throughout its operation. The quality of such conversations as the SRA has had with local interest groups has been hampered by an obvious ignorance of the local geography, something of which the Highways Agency has never been guilty. This is an omission that should be rectified with urgency.

  2.4  Both Transpennine Express and Northern franchise renewals seem to be based on providing the minimum service possible. The opportunity has not been taken to develop or expand the service or the network. This is despite evidence that increased frequencies, for example, could be sustained and should be provided on many parts of the network.

  2.5  Neither the Government nor the SRA appear 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. The continuing reliance on Pacer trains, which are universally unpopular with passengers, does not demonstrate a willingness to improve the quality of rail services. Providing extra money to Arriva Trains Northern to procure extra rolling stock when the necessary vehicles exist nowhere in the country is hardly evidence of strategic thinking.

  2.6  Investment in South East 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.

3.  THE IMPACT OF THE STRATEGIC RAIL AUTHORITY'S APPROACH TO FRANCHISING IN THE REGION?

  3.1  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 rail passengers.

  3.2  The involvement of the Passenger Transport Executives in framing the specifications for the Transpennine Express and Northern franchises is a welcome development. Links with 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. For example, a study commissioned by Northumberland County Council and (partly) North Cumbria Rural Transport Partnership provided evidence supporting an expansion of services to the smaller stations west of Hexham on the Tyne Valley line. There is no visible sign of this evidence being considered by the SRA.

  3.3  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 Cross Country 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.

  3.4  The separation of the Transpennine services from the other services in the North is incomprehensible to most observers, when the clear need for fewer franchises and closer working between operating companies has been recognised in the South East. At one of its Stakeholder Consultation Events, Northern Spirit (as it then was) stated that the separation of Transpennine Express and Northern franchises would require an extra 45 drivers over and above the large number being recruited to address the current shortfall. It is not obvious that the extra staff numbers would bring any benefits to the reliability or robustness of the two franchise operators. While we deplore the split between Northern and Transpennine Express franchises, we recognise that the refranchising process is now too advanced to reverse this decision.

  3.5  There is a clear need for a network approach in which the role of local (Northern) services is acknowledged as an essential feeder for the InterCity services of whatever brand. When asked about connections, GNER have a habit of suggesting travel to Newcastle by car rather than using local rail (or even bus) services. This is obviously a nonsense given the pressure on the existing number of parking spaces.

  3.6  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. With immediate effect, the SRA must engage with Arriva and its Unions to bring about a speedy resolution of the current disputes.

4.  WHETHER THE EXISTING FRANCHISEES PROVIDE SATISFACTORY SERVICES, PARTICULARLY IN RELATION TO SAFETY, PUNCTUALITY, RELIABILITY, COMFORT AND FREQUENCY OF SERVICES?

  4.1  Local rail services in the north are unreliable and their punctuality is poor. This results from a lack of staff, a lack of trains, and a lack of diversionary routes and other facilities. There continues to be 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 which are essential for an integrated network service.

  4.2  The quality of trains is poor and the quality of their presentation is too often also poor. The long promised cascade of higher quality trains has not materialised and there is no evidence that the SRA has used its franchising powers to effect improvements in this area.

  4.3  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. In the case of the Tyne Valley line, Railtrack has blocked the reintroduction of a late evening service on Saturdays since such a service was introduced Mondays to Fridays in 1998. Their stated reason is the need to carry out engineering work but there is little evidence of this work having been carried out.

  4.4  Station quality is inadequate despite much work 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 management to deliver even very minor improvements.

  4.5  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 off other operating companies or Railtrack has become more important than delivering passengers to their destinations by the intended train.

  4.5  Information provision at stations is desperately poor, in many cases non-existent. Public address systems at even major stations such as Newcastle upon Tyne are often incomprehensible and conflict with information given on the monitors. Marketing of the rail alternative is at best patchy.

  4.6  Consultation by Arriva Trains Northern with its passengers has greatly improved. However, 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.

5.  PLANS FOR INVESTMENT IN THE RAIL NETWORK IN THE REGION AND WHETHER THEY MEET THE NEEDS OF ADDITIONAL CAPACITY AND OTHER IMPROVEMENTS?

  5.1  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 seem to be driven by local authorities, often against seemingly determined opposition from the SRA and/or Railtrack, and all to take an unconscionable time to deliver.

  5.2  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 some 1,000,000 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 Alnwick bypass.

  5.3  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.

6.  INFLUENCE OF RAIL SERVICES ON THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE REGION?

  6.1  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 marginalised.

  6.2  The Alnmouth/Alnwick branch mentioned above is a good example of 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.

  6.3  In short, the lack of targeted investment in the railways of the region represents a lost opportunity for both economic and social development



 
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Prepared 11 July 2003