Memorandum by North East Institute of
Logistics and Transport (REN 21)
RAILWAY SERVICE PERFORMANCE IN THE NORTH
EAST OF ENGLAND SINCE PRIVATISATION
1. THE TERRITORY
1.1 The North East of England is here defined
as the area from Immingham to Standedge (the Lancashire and Yorkshire
boundary) and north to Berwick on Tweed, including the Settle
and Carlisle railway line. The territory is defined in this way
because it substantially follows the rail franchise map.
1.2 In this area there are currently four
passenger railway operatorsGreat North Eastern Railway
[GNER], which runs services from London to Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh
and other Scottish cities; Virgin Cross Country [VXC], which runs
long distance services from Scotland, the North East and the North
West of England to Birmingham, the South and South West of England
and South Wales; Arriva North, [AN] which runs the former Regional
Railways services in the area, including Trans-Pennine Express
services and the intensive electric services in West Yorkshire
Passenger Transport Executive area. These three companies are
Train Operating Companies [TOC's] In addition there is the Metro
service in Tyne and Wear operated by Tyne and Wear PTE trading
as Nexus. [Nexus]. The Metro system owns and operates its own
stations and a majority of the infrastructure, as well as owning
and operating trains.
1.3 The performance of these four operators
will be considered separately, but it should be noted that in
many cases they share track, and the poor performance of one operator
can and, frequently does, impact on others.. This is particularly
evident between Leeds, York and Newcastle, where the use of the
infrastructure is shared by GNER, VXC and AN, as well as by freight
services, and also between Newcastle and Sunderland, where the
line of route is shared by AN, Nexus and freight services.
1.4 All four operators use Railtrack infrastructure,
although until 2002 the Nexus operated Metro was largely independent
of Railtrack,. Now the extension from Pelaw to Sunderland uses
Railtrack infrastructure. It is clear from both from the Railtrack
National performance task force data, and from the writer's first
hand observations that delays and disruption caused by Railtrack's
mismanagement of the infrastructure have far exceeded those caused
by "in house" failures of the Train Operators. In period
11 of 2001-02 all three operators suffered more from Railtrack
delays than from their internal failings, with the % of delay
caused by the TOC operators ranging from 21% for GNER to 36% for
AN. The four train operators do show their own distinctive patterns
of failure causefor example staffing problems loom large
in AN, whereas VXC suffers most badly from delays caused by other
2. GNER SERVICES
2.1 This company operates the former Inter-City
East Coast Main Line services, from Kings Cross to Leeds, and
to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. The
routes to Leeds and to Glasgow via Edinburgh and Motherwell are
electrified. South of Edinburgh this network is the fastest and
most modern railway route in Britain, and was when it was privatised.
That said, the route has seen two severe accidents at Hatfield
in 2000 and at Potters Bar in 2002 which have been caused by track
failures, on a route which under BR control had very good track
2.2 GNER Services are very frequent, and
passenger journeys increased substantially until the prolonged
period of chaos which followed the Hatfield accident of October
2000. The experience of many travellers, borne out by our own
records of journeys made and some study of daily lateness profiles,
is that on a day unaffected by significant infrastructure problems
GNER runs one of the best privatised services. As a company, its
main source of in-house unreliability has been the failure of
the class 91 locomotives which haul most of the electric trains.
The company is progressively refurbishing these locomotives, and
the resulting improvement in reliability is encouraging.
2.3 The most conspicuous infrastructure
failures have been those which caused both the Hatfield derailment
and the chaotic speed restriction regime which followed it. However,
almost as significant has been the number of "wires down"
incidents caused essentially by the ever increasing use of electrification
infrastructure which was poorly specified in the first place.
As an operator GNER has been poor at service recoverynot
least because of the very intensive use of rolling stock which
has often prevented a flexible response. That said, the statistics
show that GNER's performance before Hatfield was better than that
of comparable services run by First Great Western and Virgin Rail,
and very much better than those of VXC or ATN. The recent performance
of GNER has been hampered by continued infrastructure problems,
including the protracted remodelling of Leeds City Station (which
also affected AN and VXC) and the derailment at Potters Bar in
May 2002. The issue of the refranchising of GNER routes is considered
3. VIRGIN CROSS-COUNTRY
3.1 Train services from Scotland and the
North East to Birmingham and thence south and west have long been
troubled by delays and cancellations. There are two reasons why
this is so. The first is that the service thread their way through
many complex operating centres such as York, Leeds, Derby and
Birmingham, and are frequently delayed at these places. The second
is that the services have frequent scheduled stops, which both
inhibited the regaining of lost time, except through smarter station
working, and also causes engineering stress to the trains used
on the route. That said, Virgin's early attempts to "sweat
the assets" in order to improve productivity and increase
service frequencies tended to exacerbate the inherent problems.
3.2 The VXC franchise is of long duration,
and from 2001 a new generation of diesel trains ("Voyagers"
and "Super-Voyagers") have been introduced. VXC has
been conspicuously successful in getting these new trains into
service, and their performance so far suggests that a substantial
improvement in service performance will be achieved by 2003.
3.3 The performance of the VXC train crews
and train equipment has already shown improvement, but the dearth
of experienced staff with authority still means that an initial
service problem often creates further chaos and an absence of
4. ARRIVA NORTH
4.1 AN took over the regional train franchise
from MTL in 2000, when that company got into financial difficulties.
The Strategic Rail Authority were primarily concerned to ensure
that someone took over the franchise, and AN's bid was deemed
to be the best expedient. In fact the bid itself was simply far
too low to generate the revenue needed to pay staff to maintain
the services planned
4.2 Staff shortages, particularly of drivers,
abysmal industrial relations, and the poorly planned and slowly
executed reconstruction of Leeds Citythe hub of AN's serviceshave
been sufficient to produce a service quality which in a short
time has earned this company the BBC's accolade of "Britain's
worst train operator", criticism vociferously shared by the
local press and their correspondence columns.
4.3 The fact that many AN rail services
are paralleled by Arriva group bus services, has fuelled the suspicion
that this company is only too ready to cancel train services and
run a bus instead.
4.4 The failure to recruit and retain staff
is the fault of AN and of MTL before it. The problem has recently
been exacerbated by a 17% increase in pay to drivers, matched
by an offer of 3% to other AN staff, thus widening differentials
and causing strikes of TSSA and RMT staff. Given the reluctance
of the "white collar" TSSA union to take industrial
action, the degree of staff discontent is obvious. Prior to privatisation,
train crews could often progress to more interesting and lucrative
work by moving from local train operation to longer distance services.
Now they can and do switch from one company to another, and this
has greatly disadvantaged AN as well as MTL. Many of the projected
savings in subsidy from low price franchise bids depended upon
the assumption that labour would be as biddable as it was when
unemployment was much higher. Today companies must accept that
they will have to pay the market rate to staffa principle
which Arriva has already applied to its directors.
4.5 AN's franchise bid was too low to be
practicable. Given that their take-over of the franchise started
when some experience of franchise operation had been gained, this
was clearly the fault of both Arriva Group and of the SRA. The
chaos in the reconstruction of Leeds station, and the more general
track problems on the East Coast Main Line and on the Durham Coast
route through Hartlepool are largely the responsibility of Railtrack.
4.6 Train failures, strikes, dirty trains
and poorly maintained vehicles have been the everyday experience
of many train commuters in the North East, but it is fair to note
that similar phases of unreliabilityexacerbated by poor
train designwere also a feature of British Rail operation
of these services.
5.1 Nexus operate an integrated rapid transit
system (The Metro) which replace local BR lines from 1980. In
2002 the system was extended to Sunderland on Railtrack metals
shared by AN and freight operators.
5.2 The Metro system shows a high level
of service reliability, though the trend in punctuality is disappointing.
That said, the punctuality and reliability is markedly better
than that of electric trains in the Leeds area. The level of use
of the system has fallen in recent years, in contrast to the Metrolink
system in Greater Manchester.
5.3 Nexus is a consortium of local authorities.
The Metro service has not been put out to tender in the in the
way that other rail systems (including light rail systems) have
been. This is inconsistent, though it is noteworthy that the Nexus
corporate structure is similar to that in most conurbations in
the EU which run Metro systems, and achieve a higher level of
quality than is normal for rail services in the UK. It may be
that the working practices and marketing of Metro are not as imaginative
as those of the better TOC's, but the advantages of an integrated
system of train and track operation are evident. The incidence
of anti-social users and vandals on this thinly staffed system
has been a cause of reduced travel, delays and cancellations on
some parts of this system. Fares on Metro, as on London Underground,
have increased much faster than inflation in the past decide.
However, the Metro in Tyne and Wear has genuine competition from
increasing car ownership and deregulated buses, in contrast to
the situation frequently found in London, so the fare increases
have affected use by full fare passengers.
6.1 In the first round of Train Operating
Company franchises, the period of franchise (seven years as a
rule) was far too short to enable operators to make substantial
investments. Trains are typically built for a "book life"
of 30 years, and many British trains are more than 40 years old.
The lead time from placing an order for rolling stock to the equipment
entering full revenue service is often more than five years, so
the inadequacy of a 7 year franchise is evident. It is conspicuous
that VXC, which gained a 15 year franchise is introducing new
generation rolling stock. It is a fortunate accident that GNER
have been able to lease trains built for "Eurostar"
regional services off the shelf, or they would be suffering an
acute shortage of trains with consequent over-crowding
6.2 In the first round of franchising, the
mistake so often evident in Compulsory Competitive tendering applied
in the Local Government Act of 1988, of "buying in the cheapest"
was often applied, with the result that poor value for money was
6.3 The indecision of the SRA and of the
DETR and its political masters concerning the next period of franchise
for the East Coast Mail Line has been most unfortunate. On paper
the Virgin non-compliant "high speed line" bid looked
appealing, but both the orthodox bid from Virgin and that from
GNER were well constructed. To dither, and then allow GNER a two
year extension of franchise was the most unhelpful option possible.
It invited planning blight, and the fact that GNER have been able
to offer service improvements at all in the two year period has
been due to the availability of spare "Eurostar" trains
which can be operated between Kings Cross and Leeds. As it is
there are no proposals to replace the ageing diesel High Speed
Trains which must be used to Aberdeen and Inverness, and which
are in fact used on other services on electrified routes. There
is an underlying issue here, which is the policy decision required
to decide whether or not it is acceptable for both the West Coast
Main Line from Euston and the East Coast Main Line from Kings
Cross to be held by the same company. This policy decision should
be separated from an assessment of the quality of the franchise
6.4 The decision to split Trans-Pennine
services from local services in the North East has some appeal,
though it may reduce the scope for shared costs. For example many
Trans-Pennine trains now continue as local trains to Sunderland
or Metro Centre, which might not happen if the Trans-Pennine services
were run by a TOC not responsible for local services. The bidders
for this franchise include Arriva, and this prompts an obvious
questiondoes the failure of an operator to deliver promised
services during one franchise preclude it from bidding for the
next phase, or indeed from franchises elsewhere in Britain?
7.1 The tendering process has not addressed
the most conspicuous difference between passenger rail systems
in Britain and those in Japan, France, Germany, and Italythe
absence of any proposalslet alone constructionof
new high speed rail routes. Even the suggestion that an equivalent
of Shinkansen, Lignes a" grande vitesse, Neubaustrecken
and Direttissimi should be constructed between London and
Scotland is widely regarded as unworldly. This timid approach
to investment in radical infrastructure development needs addressing
7.2 TOC franchises should normally be for
a 15 year period. This will have the advantage of encouraging
a sustained approach to investment in equipment, and marketing.
In addition it could encourage a long term view of productivity
improvements rather than the "quick fix" approach attempted
by some TOC's. Such long term franchises will probably be a pre-requisite
for the creation of new high speed routes.
7.3 A consistent approach to PTE services
is needed. An approach where all PTE services including the Nexus
Metro system are franchised, but the PTA's should be partners
in the franchising process would be one way forward. Another civilised
approach would be to accept that civilised public transport in
cities is an essential service which is as important as good drainage,
and pay for investment by a payroll levy or road congestion charging.
New urban rail investment is stronger in Leeds and Newcastle than
in most British cities, but urban rail investment still compares
badly to most Northern European conurbations.
7.4 A regime which encourages more intensive
use of Railtrack infrastructure without appropriate additional
charges to the TOC's will inevitably cause infrastructure problems,
as is evident in the competition for paths on double track sections
of the East Coast main line. The financial regime needs to change
so that a greater element of payment is made for the more intensive
use of scarce infrastructure. As a policy approach this use of
the market could also be applied to road pricing and the auction
of slots at airports. On railways this would be an extension of
the market-pricing approach used to charge premium prices at peak
times, and to sell spare capacity cheaply on the basis of marginal
7.5 A sophisticated model for "supplier
appraisal" of companies tendering needs to be developed.
However it must be recognised that service specifications are
very much more difficult to devise (and implement in a robust
way) than are equipment specifications. On-going dialogue between
operators, Railtrack and the SRA is therefore essential, and this
dialogue can only develop if there is a reasonable period of organisational
7.6 "Soft" quality issues such
as recruitment, communication and systems of service recovery
need to be considered as part of franchise bids, as well as "hard"
issues like timetables and new trains, and tender documentation
and specification could profitably encourage this approach.
David Stewart-David FCIT FILT
Policy Officer Tyne Tees Institute of Logistics and