Memorandum by Passengers in the North
East (REN 17)
RAIL SERVICES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
6.1 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