Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Campaign for a North-East Assembly (REN 29)


1.  The Strategic Rail Authority's commitment to improving rail services?

  1.1  There is no apparent dynamic commitment to improvement; the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) have to be dragged to the act and are generally unsupportive of improvement initiatives. They do not take the lead in route assessments; for example, the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne re-opening, supported by all authorities in the region, is being neither led nor driven by the SRA.

  1.2  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 is deplorable, contrasting starkly with the quality of highway verges, and hence demonstrating where the Government and SRA priorities lie.

  1.3  Seen from the North East, the SRA remains low on vision and leadership, although some improvement is becoming detectable. In this respect, the SRA is very much a poor relation lagging far behind the aspirations and achievements of the Highways Agency as it champions the cause of the highway network. The lack of a northern office for the SRA has led to a lack of northern focus throughout its operation and is an omission which should be rectified with urgency. An elected regional assembly, according to the "Your Region, Your Choice" White Paper, would be able to make proposals to the SRA for schemes of regional importance, providing the region with a democratically mandated voice that the SRA would be obliged to listen to.

  1.4  The need to invest in and expand the rail network in order to achieve the overall transport targets relating to congestion and pollution is not being met. Both the TransPennine and the Northern franchise renewals seem to be based on providing a minimum service. The opportunity has not been taken to develop or expand the service or the network in the North East, even though there is evidence that increased frequencies could be sustained and should be provided on many parts of the network. Investment in the South East of England may be essential but it should not be at the expense of the North East. A modest funding switch from highways to rail would adequately meet the need of northern rail projects.

2.   The impact of the Strategic Rail Authority's approach to franchising in the region?

  2.1  There has been a notable lack of consultation and engagement with those for whom the passenger railway is there, namely the passengers.

  2.2  The involvement of the Passenger Transport Executives in the Northern franchise is a welcome development but the links with the other civic authorities appear tenuous. Again, a regional assembly could provide the unifying link here.

  2.3  The franchising process is both too slow and too late. It has failed to recognise the reality of the circumstances in which it has extended existing franchises, such as that let to Arriva Trains Northern Ltd. Moreover, the SRA appears to abdicate responsibility once a franchise has been let. One result is the continuing unimaginative use of the InterCity services on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) north of Newcastle; with consultation and imagination but negligible real cost the existing Great North Eastern Railways (GNER) and Virgin trains could be used to provide a good service between the towns in Northumberland as well as connecting these towns to both Newcastle and Edinburgh.

  2.4  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 situation must be avoided in the proposed new franchises and with immediate effect. The SRA should engage with Arriva and its Unions to bring about a speedy resolution of the current disputes. Once more, however, the voice of the region has to be filtered through Westminster to reach the SRA.

3.  Whether the existing franchisees provide satisfactory services, particularly in relation to safety, punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency of services?

  3.1  The local rail services in the north are of inadequate reliability and punctuality: inadequate because of a lack of staff, a lack of trains and a lack of diversionary routes and facilities as well as inadequate investment to provide modern, reliable infrastructure across the region. Punctuality is poor, even when parochial decisions favour local punctuality rather than the maintenance of the connections which are essential for an integrated network service.

  3.2  The quality and appearance of trains is poor with a heavy over-reliance on "Pacer" units. The long promised cascade of higher quality trains has not materialised and there is little evidence of the SRA using its franchising powers to effect improvements in this area.

  3.3  The timetables generally make inadequate provision for early and late services, and the frequency, even where improved in some areas by successful Rail Passenger Partnership bids, is generally inadequate to develop a thriving service.

  3.4  Station quality is inadequate. Much has been done 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.

  3.5  The service offered is disjointed; it is the very opposite of integrated. Connecting services between local trains, local trains and bus services and between local and InterCity trains should be the lifeblood of a networked, integrated rail system.

  3.6  Information provision at stations is poor, in many cases non-existent. Public address systems, even at major stations such as Newcastle upon Tyne, are often incomprehensible. Marketing of the rail alternative is at best patchy.

  3.7  Consultation by Arriva with its passengers is greatly improved but neither Railtrack nor the SRA have made real efforts to communicate with either passengers or freight operators within the region. 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. The Highways Agency already does this sort of thing very successfully.

4.   Plans for investment in the rail network in the region and whether they meet the needs of additional capacity and other improvements?

  4.1  Judged from the visible evidence, plans to meet the need for additional network capacity and other improvements are non-existent. Many local authorities have identified and are driving forward local improvement schemes, but often against seemingly determined opposition from the SRA and all to take an unconscionable time to deliver. A unified voice from a regional assembly might help produce a coherent regional rail network plan that the SRA is obliged to accept and support.

  4.2  Existing routes such as the Durham Coast line, which serves major centres of population such as Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton and Middlesbrough, are starved of investment—and a million people are denied an effective 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.   Influence of rail services on the economic and social development in the region?

  5.1  The ECML is one of the main economic arteries of the region. It needs increased capacity and better infrastructure and timetabling links with the local rail network. But, the North East currently has little direct say in decisions relating to investment in this strategic link.

  5.2  The region's network of ports, industry and rail could form the basis of an effective rail-freight network, but the policy links are not being made, and the North East has no clear regional voice on this.

  5.3  A high quality, reliable rail network benefits all sections of the community, and is central to successful regeneration, and combating social exclusion. The "Your Region, Your Choice" White Paper sets out the functions for an elected regional assembly, including the responsibility for the Regional Development Agency and the drawing up of a regional economic strategy; an assembly will also be responsible for a regional transport strategy. Such joining up of policy is critical for successful economic and social development, and could have positive implications for longer-term economic and social regeneration. An elected assembly would also bring with it a democratic mandate, giving a voice to the people of the North East, where at present there is none.

  5.4  Investment in the railways also brings immediate economic benefits in terms of job creation. The Alnmouth/Alnwick branch mentioned above is a good example of failure to invest in rail being a lost opportunity for job creation. This is not a vague hope that unspecified investment will somehow result in new jobs, but an example of highly focused investment bringing specific jobs such as those related to the operation of the branch and also to support the tourism developments that the heritage aspect of the branch proposal would create.

  5.5  In short, targeted investment in the railways of the region represents an opportunity for immediate social and economic development. The railways are also central to longer-term economic and social development, an end that could be better achieved through the creation of an elected regional assembly with significant powers and the ability to join up the policy areas of transport and economic regeneration.

Nick Best


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