Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Cumbria County Council (REN 22)



  1.  The Transport Sub Committee has decided to undertake an inquiry into rail services in the north of England and has invited memoranda from witnesses before 10 June 2002. The committee will consider the governments and Strategic rail Authority (SRA) commitment to improving rail services and the impact of the SRA approach to franchising in the region. This paper is intended to inform the Transport Sub Committee of the views of the County Council in relation to rail services in the region and particularly in Cumbria. These views are approved by the Council's Cabinet Member for Economy and Infrastructure.


  2.  Train services in Cumbria are provided by four train operators: Services between Manchester Airport and Barrow in Furness, Manchester Airport and Windermere, and between Barrow and Carlisle via Whitehaven and Workington are operated by First North Western (FNW). Arriva Trains North (ATN) provide services between Leeds and Carlisle via Settle and between Newcastle and Carlisle via Hexham (ScotRail also operate some of the latter services which continue to Stranraer). ScotRail provide services between Carlisle and Glasgow via Dumfries. Virgin Trains provide the sole service on the West Coast Main Line linking Oxenholme, Penrith and Carlisle with the rest of England and Scotland.

  3.  Under the SRA proposal for franchise replacement the FNW and ATN services will be replaced partly by the new Transpennine Express franchise and partly the new Northern franchise. Although this will alter the boundary division between service providers, it is the view of the Council that the continued split between two operators will not improve coordination or integration between services.

  4.  The over-arching issue for the Committee to recognise is the importance of subsidy to the Northern Franchise. The franchise covers a socially necessary railway with few services that would be provided on a strictly commercial basis particularly in rural or economically disadvantaged areas. Therefore any franchise needs to specify closely what is required and allow for public investment in development of non-commercial services, in the understanding that any franchisee is unlikely to be motivated by market forces to innovate or speculate. This characteristic does not seem to be recognised by the approach of Government or the SRA to investment in the regional rail network as an integral part of their overall strategy.

  5.  Responding to the SRA Strategic Plan earlier this year the Council made the following points relevant to this inquiry: "Members were very concerned about the emphasis on the South East as principal recipient for SRA funds as this would divert funds away from the regional network . . . They are also concerned about the emphasis on PTE areas in the Northern and Transpennine franchises which does not take account of important role the Shire County authorities have to play in the delivery of the government's 10 year plan. We seek your assurances that the County Council will be properly engaged by the SRA in specifying, evaluating and monitoring delivery of the outputs of the Northern Franchise . . . In relation to strategic development of the rail network we welcome the revised guidance and increased allocation for the Rail Passenger Partnership fund and aim to exploit this but we are concerned that this piecemeal and locally generated approach to network enhancement may not result in a clear, strategic and prioritised view of the needs of the regional network."

  6.  Perhaps more importantly the Council has been concerned that the level of consultation by the SRA with County Council's concerning franchise replacement has been poor. The focus has been on the PTEs who, while important co-funders of rail services in the North have little interest in services in Cumbria or the more remote parts of Lancashire. We have pressed for the establishment of a Business Unit within the franchise for Cumbria and north Lancashire to give a senior and empowered management presence in the sub region. The SRA approach to managing the franchise could usefully reflect the non PTE interests.


  7.  The concerns of the Council are set out under the headings set out by the Sub Committee in its call for memoranda. The Council also endorses the response to the Inquiry made by the North West Regional Assembly into which it has had an input.


  8.  Safety: The Council is not equipped to judge the operational safety of the train service provided by the existing franchisees. However under a broader safety heading there are concerns about personal security of passengers and intending passengers, which are not being adequately addressed through staffing or systems at some stations and on some trains.

  9.  Punctuality and Reliability: The punctuality and reliability of most services in the region have been adversely affected by the precautionary effects of recent railway accidents, by planned and emergency engineering work and by unplanned over-runs of these works, for example Leeds First. Staff and rolling stock shortages have impacted upon service reliability, as has recent and continuing industrial action. Generally however service reliability and punctuality are reasonable and mirror the unpredictability of road travel. Some of these issues could be resolved by increasing the availability of spare resources to give a margin to cover failures and raises the question of whether the current approach of Government and the SRA puts efficiency before effectiveness.

  10.  Frequencies: The frequency of train services in Cumbria is basic or poor. There are no local services at frequencies greater than one train per hour. This is not attractive for local and sub-regional trips to potential users who have access to a car. On the Carlisle to Leeds service there are only five trains each way per day, on the Carlisle to Barrow line there is no Sunday service other than the three trains a day provided with support from the Council (the Council has repeatedly sought the inclusion of these Sunday services in the franchise specification). There have been marginal additional services provided by the train operators over and above the Passenger Service Requirement (PSR) set by the SRA but no substantial investment in growth. The opportunity for the SRA to encourage development of the rail network was missed at the original round of franchising and this should be addressed in the franchise replacement process.

  11.  Comfort: Comfort on trains is improving steadily as new rolling stock is introduced and existing stock is refurbished. The new class 175 trains operated by FNW on Manchester—Cumbria services are a good example of new high quality trains suited to their current role. FNW have also eliminated the class 142 trains from the Carlisle-Barrow services, progress long campaigned for by the Council and widely welcomed. The elimination of these units from all other services in Cumbria is sought as they are unsuited to long distance travel. There is some localised over crowding of trains, for example between Lancaster and Barrow and to Sellafield which still needs to be addressed by the train operators by the provision of longer trains at specific times.

  12.  Comfort at stations remains poor. Since the inception of the current franchises Railtrack have done backlog maintenance, which in some cases has made noticeable improvements to the station environment. Virgin Trains have made modest improvements to the WCML stations and are working in partnership with the Council to further improve interchange. Arriva have contributed to partnership schemes to improve waiting facilities on the Leeds-Carlisle route and have initiated a partnership scheme to extend a public address system between Carlisle and Hexham. FNW have found it difficult to implement their elements of agreed partnership schemes. Investment in facilities remains low and delivery of improvements through partnerships has been difficult to achieve due to a lack of resources allocated to this work by the train operators and Railtrack.


  13.  The Council believes that the investment proposals of the Government and SRA via train operators and Railtrack's successor are not adequate to develop a network of services and facilities which will meet the aims of providing an attractive alternative to car travel or road haulage in the region.

  14.  Specifically, the Council seeks investment in increasing the track capacity of the Windermere Branch line as part of the Lake District Transport Strategy, increasing service frequencies to half hourly between Carlisle and Whitehaven and improving the frequency, day length and days of operation and regularity of services throughout the network of local and regional services. Investment is also sought in passenger and interchange facilities at stations to be provided via franchisees or Railtrack's successor to complement funding bids through the LTP.

  15.  The Council receives representations about new stations and station re-openings together with service calling pattern changes to assist in improving access to the network. There is a view that RPP criteria are too restrictive and prevent investment in such non-commercially viable schemes. There is a demand for better cycle carrying capability on train services in the County to support tourism development and more sustainable commuting. New rolling stock design should account for this demand.

  16.  The Council has welcomed the publication of the SRA Strategic Plan as a long awaited framework for the restoration of confidence in the railway. However Members also considered that the Plan had some weaknesses. Firstly, that the full upgrade of the West Coast Main Line as originally proposed will not be implemented. Its completion is as an essential element in connecting Cumbria and the Region to the national and international transport network. The proposal for developing a new North-South high-speed rail route is welcomed and details are keenly anticipated.

  17.  A related matter is that of the accommodation of local services on the WCML north of Crewe, as may be needed to fill gaps left by Virgin Trains' service revisions, The Council would like to be assured that investment plans will ensure sufficient capacity for these services and for growth in freight traffic.

  18.  As referred to above the Council is pleased to see extension of the Rail Passenger Partnership (RPP) fund and will make bids into the fund. However we are concerned that our experience of RPP to date is that this approach requires the County Council to take sole responsibility for development of the rail network in Cumbria, which the Council is not resourced to do. Since the inception of RPP the railway industry has shown limited ability, interest and resources available to make a useful input into network development through the RPP process. A further concern of the Council is that a piecemeal and locally generated approach to network enhancement may not result in a clear, strategic and prioritised view of the needs of the regional network. The Council's position is made clear in the LTP but development needs the active support of the railway industry an its funders.

  19.  The issue of rolling stock availability for enhancements to services funded through RPP is critical as at present there appears to be no additional rolling stock available to resource any enhancements. This may then result in the reintroduction of the class 142 units on inappropriate routes.

  20.  Current proposals for investment in stations are inadequate. Stations are the first point of visual and physical contact passengers make with the railway network and service. It is important that this first impression is a favourable one. Modern travellers have high expectations of public services and buildings. If the railway is to attract new travellers making a purchase of choice, not last resort, then stations need to be brought up to a good modern standard. This is central to the achievement of the aims of the railway industry and of national and local government, to increase rail patronage and modal share.

  21.  The rail industry, local authorities and local communities are able to work together to generate and fund schemes to improve facilities at stations. One of the major failings of the present local franchises has been the lack of staff and funding resources within the TOC to devote sufficient time to working effectively in partnership to address local issues; for example work on Rail Passenger Partnerships and station and interchange improvements. There is a need to ensure that these activities are coordinated within the rail industry and therefore Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and Railtrack's successor must show themselves to be adequately resourced to play a full part. (see Railtrack and ATCO document Partnership in Railway Development)

  22.  The SRA has recently produced a station categorisation list based on the Railtrack report Developing Modern Facilities at Stations. Stations have been assigned to one of six categories (A-F) in descending order of size and importance with a summary of facilities expected at each station type. The resultant on-going SRA Stations Incremental Outputs initiative aims to improve overall standards at stations by ensuring that the standard is met at many more stations than at present. Unfortunately only staffed stations in Categories B-E are being improved. It is estimated that more than 80% of stations in the Northern Franchise area are immediately ruled out as they are unstaffed (Category F). The needs of passengers at unstaffed stations must be addressed as part of the new Northern Franchise.


  23.  The transport network in Cumbria is a core requirement of economic activity and competitiveness and of social inclusion due to the County's location on the periphery of the North West Region, UK and Europe.

  24.  Unlike many other areas of the UK, Cumbria's rail infrastructure still provides effective links between almost all the centres of population and those of employment and education and training facilities. It provides for locally significant commuter flows within the County. It also provides a means of access to employment in the economic centres of the region from communities in Cumbria by linking communities with the main North-South corridor and the West Coast Main Line. In particular the railway serves areas in need of regeneration in West and South Cumbria, where the economic base has declined, These are Regeneration Priority Areas in draft Regional Planning Guidance.

  25.  The rail network plays an important role in improving the sustainability and attractiveness of tourism. In particular it provides an important mode of access to the Lake District via the Windermere Branch line and has great potential to expand tourism in west and south Cumbria via the Cumbrian Coast line and Furness Line. The Settle-Carlisle line has developed to provide an attraction in its own right as well as access to rural East Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales.

  26.  The council has commissioned recent studies into the improvement of the rail network which focus on the role played by rail in the local economy and social inclusion. (Penrith-Keswick Rail Study 1997, Cumbria Rail Freight Study 1998, Windermere Branch Line Study 1999, Cumbria Coast Line Study 2000, Tyne Valley Rail Study 2001, Furness Line Study 2002) The studies draw attention to the importance of rail in the transport network where distances are relatively large and the road network is relatively poor. This is recognised in the strategic vision provided by the Local Transport Plan (LTP Chapter 4 Public Transport and Chapter 10 Freight)). The studies have consequently also lead to the preparation of RPP bids by the Council.


  27.  It is imperative that the Government recognise the importance of public investment in the rail network in the north of England and subsidy to the Northern Franchise. The network in Cumbria serves local social and economic needs with few services that would be provided on a strictly commercial basis. It provides the local links essential to the success of the regional and national network for longer distance travel. Investment is unlikely to be motivated by market forces for innovation or speculation.

  28.  The mechanisms for investment (franchise payments, RPP, LTP and major rail projects) need to be adequately resourced in terms of staff and preparation funding and a clear lead given to the potential partners on the role of each in managing and developing the rail network. This is an area in which integrated Government guidance is lacking.

  29.  The railway in Cumbria never the less provides for both for the needs of people without access to cars, a real, if not attractive, alternative to car travel and for freight movements. The County Council is a strong supporter of the County's rail network and wishes to continue to take an effective part in its development.

May 2002

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