Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the North West Regional Assembly (REN 25)



  1.  A high quality transport system is essential to support the competitiveness of the North West's industry and commerce, and to facilitate the Region's social and recreational needs. It is also an essential component for attracting new investment, particularly in areas where declining traditional industries need replacing by new development.

  2.  For the past three years the North West Regional Assembly has worked closely with a wide range of regional stakeholders to develop a Regional Transport Strategy (RTS) as an integral component of draft Regional Planning Guidance (RPG). The RTS is directly linked to the region's spatial development framework and principles of sustainable development which focuses development on major cities and towns along the Mersey Belt and regional towns and cities. This creates the opportunity to reduce journey distances and provide for more sustainable and integrated patterns of development and movement. Local rail services in Greater Manchester and Merseyside, therefore, have a particularly important role to play. The rail network also has an important role in providing a more sustainable alternative to the car for longer distance trips, and policies have been developed in draft RPG to encourage a greater use of this network. A summary of the main components of the region's rail strategy is set out in Appendix A.



  3.  The Assembly is not aware of any operational safety issues with any of the train operating companies in the region. There are, however, a number of stations throughout the region which suffer from security problems such as vandalism. This is a particular problem for unstaffed stations. Unstaffed stations can also be attractive as a location for groups of young people to congregate. Such incidents act as a deterrent to passengers using the rail network, particularly the more vulnerable groups such as the elderly and women travelling alone. Improved security features such as Close Circuit Television could help to reduce the incidents, as could more staffed stations—though obviously these have financial implications. It is suggested that the Department of Transport commission a study to assess the effects that different types of security measures at stations could have on passenger patronage, and hence identify which of the measures could are cost effective. One Department of Transport study which may be able to provide some answers is the secure transport project which is looking at ways of improving security along the Manchester Victoria to Clitheroe rail route.

Punctuality and Reliability

  4.  Most routes in the North West consistently fail to reach their target for punctuality, a significant portion being delays caused by Railtrack, but an equally significant portion being delays under the control of the Train Operating Companies themselves.

  5.  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, on a large number of occasions over-run on weekend engineering work has affected services in the morning peak in to Manchester on Mondays. Engineering works have also adversely impacted on the reliability of journey times on the West Coast Main Line.

  6.  Staff and rolling stock shortages have also impacted upon service reliability, as has recent and continuing industrial action. Train cancellations have been especially problematic on the Transpennine services operated by Arriva Trains Northern due to problems with shortage of drivers, which can be traced back to the under-resourcing of this franchise in the original bid from MTL Trust Holdings accepted by OPRAF. Another practice which inconveniences passengers is the termination of a service part way along a route, for example both Arriva and Central Trains have terminated late-running services at Warrington Central or Manchester Oxford Rd, leading to long gaps in the Manchester-Liverpool service in each direction.

  7.  Some difficulties have also been experienced with the introduction of new rolling stock, for example First North Western's Class 175s have suffered a significant number of teething troubles and are still failing to achieve the planned levels of availability. However, investment in rolling stock is to be welcomed, and the new Virgin rolling stock does not appear to be suffering from many teething troubles.

  8.  The rail industry needs to improve its management capabilities across a wide range of disciplines. Better project management is needed for both infrastructure maintenance and improvement schemes. It is essential to minimise disruption and ensure that reasonable alternatives are in place for passengers to mitigate any disruption which is unavoidable. Improved management of track maintenance is needed to reduce the numbers of incidents which affect train operating companies. The train operating companies need to better manage their recruitment and retention of staff and the maintenance of rolling stock.


  9.  Rolling stock quality varies across the network. There are a significant number of Class 142 Pacers, which though only approximately 10 to 15 years old, offer relatively poor standards of passenger comfort compared to new rolling stock. They particularly suffer from inferior ride quality when travelling on poorly maintained track. Other trains such as the Merseyrail Electric stock are ageing and in need of refurbishment and ultimately replacing. Comfort on some routes, however, is improving as new rolling stock is introduced and existing stock is refurbished.

  10.  A recent survey by the Rail Passenger Committee for the North West covered eight routes, of which seven showed various degrees of overcrowding. There have also been a number of instances over the last winter where trains were so full that they did not pick up passengers at booked stops (eg Atherton). Similarly in the evening peak, there been examples of trains being delayed in Manchester while passengers are asked to leave overcrowded trains. Some of these incidents have resulted in the British Transport Police having to become involved.

  11.  Comfort at many stations remains poor. The Strategic Rail Authority's Stations Incremental Outputs initiative aims to improve overall standards at stations, however, currently only staffed stations are being improved. It is estimated that less than 20% of stations in the Northern Franchise area are staffed. The needs of passengers at unstaffed stations should be considered, for example the lack of customer information has an even greater impact than lack of information at staffed stations.

  12.  The re-franchising process offers the potential for addressing the above issues, but the degree to which the problems will be alleviated will be dependent upon the amount of funding made available.


  13.  The frequency of train services in rural areas tends to be basic or poor, with few local services 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. Sunday services tend to be lacking, and though there have been some additional services provided by the train operators over and above the Passenger Service Requirement (PSR) set by the SRA, there has not been significant investment for growth. In the metropolitan areas, there are aspirations for higher frequency local services, but capacity constraints, particularly around Manchester prevent these plans from being realised. There are also aspirations for increased frequencies of service in the Shire areas, where capacity constraints may be less of an issue, but where for example an increase from an hourly to half hourly service could make a significant difference to the attractiveness of the service.

  14.  The re-franchising process offers the potential for addressing some of the issues, particularly the rural services, but infrastructure investment will be needed to deliver improvements in the metropolitan areas. The main constraint will be the likely levels of funding available.


  15.  Given the need for Regional Planning Bodies to work closely with regional stakeholders in producing a regional transport strategy it is disappointing and frustrating that the SRA have not seen fit to date to work closely with or consult stakeholders on either the Strategic Plan or the refranchising processes. To date the SRA has left consultation on the franchises to the discretion of the franchise bidders. The SRA has then tended to undertake seminars telling stakeholders what they will or will not get rather than undertaking a consultative process.

  16.  The Assembly welcomes the funding provided for the various small-scale programmes by the SRA which enhance the network, but is concerned about the focus of major infrastructure improvements in London and the South East for the 10-year plan period. This becomes even more of a problem because the new franchises will be shorter term than originally envisaged with little opportunity or requirement for infrastructure improvements to be delivered through the franchise process. Draft RPG and the recently published draft Government modifications identify regionally significant rail priorities and the recently completed West Midlands to North West Conurbation and South East Manchester multi-modal studies have also recommended major rail infrastructure investment. These are set out in Appendix B. The problem is that there seems to be no clear mechanism in place for securing anything other than minor network improvements before 2010 at the earliest.

  17.  Another proposal that concerns the Assembly is the West Coast Main Line Passenger Upgrade 2 (PUG2), which it seems unlikely to proceed as originally envisaged. The West Coast Main Line is a main artery for the North West and the completion of the upgrade is seen as an essential element in connecting the Region to the national and international transport network. The MIDMAN multi-modal study was predicated on the delivery of the full PUG2 upgrade. Any downgrading of the scheme will, therefore, impact on the MIDMAN strategy. It is also vital that freight and local passenger services continue to be accommodated on the route, and indeed further capacity enhancements should be sought to cater for longer-term growth. Hence the proposal for developing a new North-South high-speed rail route is welcomed and details are keenly anticipated. New links for freight which connect the North West to the Channel Tunnel are also desirable. In both cases it is vital that final proposals have an alignment which gives maximum benefit to the North West whilst mitigating any environmental impacts.

  18.  Transpennine rail routes form part of the region's main passenger and freight arteries and have the potential to act as a key route in the North European Trade Axis, providing an alternative to the region's dependence on North-South routes to Europe. The need for improvement of these routes has been highlighted in draft RPG.

  19.  Current proposals for investment in stations will not address the needs. Stations are the first point of visual and physical contact that passengers make with the railway network and service. It is important that this first impression is a favourable one. If the railway is to try to attract people out of their cars then stations need to be brought up to a good modern standard. This will require improvements to comfort, security, access for disabled groups and provision of reliable and up-to-date journey information.

  20.  The regional transport strategy recognises the importance of the rail network for the movement of freight and highlights capacity problems as being a major constraint. Loading gauge enhancements to the network to accommodate 9'6'' sea containers are needed to facilitate the developing demands of the freight industry if road haulage is to be avoided. Currently only the West Coast Main Line and the Ports of Garston and Heysham are cleared to this standard (though there are currently no facilities for handling rail freight at Heysham). Improvements to the links to other ports (both within and outwith the region) and freight terminals are needed as is upgrading of the Transpennine routes. There is currently no commitment from the SRA to these improvements.

  21.  Problems are also being experienced in delivering relatively small-scale freight schemes. At present whilst most improvements (eg Olive Mount Chord) are a priority in the SRA 10 year plan and are programmed for early delivery, Railtrack advise they cannot deliver due to a lack of signalling resources until 2007. It is essential that sufficient personnel are recruited into the industry and trained as quickly as possible to facilitate the implementation of these schemes.


  22.  The North West's rail infrastructure provides good links between most of the regions towns and cities. It provides for locally significant commuter flows and provides a means of access to employment in the economic centres of the region. It also serves the Regeneration Priority Areas identified in the Regional (Economic) Strategy and draft RPG.

  23.  The rail network also 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.

  24.  There are, however, a number of key constraints in the network:

    —  Manchester Hub—capacity constraints in Manchester limit the potential for improvements for both passenger and freight services. Resolving this issue is a top priority for the Region.

    —  West Coast Main Line—one of the region's main arteries for passenger and freight traffic suffers from congestion and unreliability. Proposed upgrades are likely to be reduced in scale and hence constrain economic growth for the region. Improvements in capacity will be essential, not only to facilitate the high-speed passenger traffic but also local stopping services and freight.

    —  Transpennine—another of the region's main passenger and freight arteries and which has the potential to act as a key route in the North European Trade Axis, providing an alternative to the region's dependence on North-South routes to Europe. Capacity improvements will be needed to facilitate growth in both passenger and freight flows.

    —  Manchester Airport Western Rail Link—this is another regional priority for which there is no commitment within the SRA Strategic Plan. The airport is a major economic generator and improved access by rail will facilitate more sustainable economic growth. The scheme also has the potential to improve access between the airport and Chester and North Wales and facilitate other benefits such as a potential route for bypassing Manchester. This scheme is also supported by the MIDMAN and SEMMMS multi-modal studies.

  25.  Two new franchises (TPE and Northern) are being developed by the SRA. It is understood that there will be a "base" franchise bid with an option for it to be "enhanced" if and when additional funding is available. It is essential that additional funding is made available so that a programme of enhanced services and station improvements can be agreed that will support RPG/RTS and LTP objectives.

  26.  The Transpennine Express (TPE) franchise offers the opportunity to provide Inter-City quality services, and is welcomed by the Assembly. There are, however, some concerns in parts of the region:

    —  Separate Transpennine and Northern franchises reduce the scope for economies of scale and cross-subsidy. An alternative structure that has been suggested by the Rail Passenger Committee is for one operator to be awarded both franchises, but operate with separate business units to cover day-to-day activities.

    —  The omission of the present Central Trains Liverpool to East Anglia service within the TPE franchise means that two different operators will continue to provide InterCity services over the key Transpennine axis between Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, with a third operator (Northern Rail) providing both fast and stopping services.

    —  The decision to incorporate within the TPE franchise the present First North Western services between Manchester Airport, Manchester Piccadilly and Barrow in Furness or Windermere, but not the similar Manchester Airport to Blackpool North services which inter-work with them to provide a co-ordinated Express service between Manchester Airport and Preston, which extends the disaggregated service concept presently applying between Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield to the Manchester-Preston route. It also risks a reduction in local services in the Furness area, which are currently at levels above the PSR and are partly provided by calls in the services to be transferred to Transpennine Express.

    —  The decision to exclude from the TPE franchise the section of the Scarborough-Bradford-Blackburn-Blackpool North service west of Leeds, results in Bradford, Halifax, Blackburn and Blackpool, four of the largest towns in northern England, not receiving Transpennine InterCity-standard train services.

    —  The decision to split the through service between Manchester Airport and Cleethorpes at Doncaster, which deprives north Lincolnshire of InterCity-standard services and through services to Sheffield, Manchester and Manchester Airport.

    —  There is a concern that the successful franchisee for TPE will concentrate efforts on the Manchester —Leeds market to the detriment of other markets served by more than one operator, simply because this is the only market in which it can guarantee it will achieve the full return on its own investment.

  27.  The proposed Northern Franchise covers a socially necessary railway with a significant number of services that would be difficult to provide on a strictly commercial basis, particularly in rural or economically disadvantaged areas. Franchisees are unlikely to be able to economically justify innovative or speculative services over and above the base franchise. It would be useful for Government to allow public sector bodies to invest in the development of non-commercial services to allow for innovation, for example schemes resulting in wider social inclusion.

  28.  The proposed extension of the Central Trains (CT) franchise for two years means that there will be a two-year delay in any real investment in the services operated by CT, in particular the key Express links between Liverpool-Manchester-Sheffield-Nottingham-East Anglia and Liverpool-Birmingham-East Anglia.

  29.  Fare structures can also be detrimental to the economic and social progress of the North West. This is particularly an issue for the large part of the region which falls outside of the Passenger Transport Authority (PTA) areas. This difference in regime encourages car commuting to stations within the PTA boundaries to benefit from a cheaper fare structure.

  30.  For longer distance trips the "walk-on" costs for Virgin train tickets to London has increased disproportionately over the last few years and provides a big dis-incentive to business to use the network. This counteracts the Assembly's policies which seek to encourage more people to use the rail network for longer distance journeys.


  31.  The key constraints on the North West rail network arise from an historical lack of investment. If the problems are to be addressed then more resources (staffing as well as financial) will need to be found. It is suggested that the Government consider the needs and benefits of improvements to the railway system as part of the process of undertaking the current three-year spending review. Other means of creating revenue streams should be considered, ranging from road pricing with hypothecation of revenue, to deriving increased revenue from improved efficiency and then re-directing these revenues to new infrastructure. Better management and control of infrastructure projects should be pursued to deliver schemes more cost-effectively.

  32.  Greater co-operation of stakeholders is needed to ensure the development of complimentary strategies, for example, to develop practical measures of increasing passenger patronage, as again this could raise additional revenue streams. The traditionally poor level of joint-working and consultation undertaken by the SRA with stakeholders needs to be significantly improved, particularly by working with stakeholders rather than dictating to them.

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