Memorandum by the Campaign for a North-East
Assembly (REN 29)
RAIL SERVICES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
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
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
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 investmentand
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.