Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by COASTLINERS (REN 30)


  COASTLINERS is the rail users' group for the Sunderland-Hartlepool-Stockton line. As requested, we reply in turn to the threefold statement of the Sub-committee's Terms of Reference.

A—whether the existing franchisees provide satisfactory services, particularly in relation to safety. punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency of services.

  1.  The short answer is No. Safety is rarely in doubt: but Punctuality is variable, though it can (from Middlesbrough towards Sunderland, at least) be excellent for days on end, Members who commute between Tees-side and Sunderland have been pleasantly surprised by the punctuality of most southbound trains, even after sharing the Newcastle-Sunderland route with the newly-extended Metro services; but it could he even better.

  2.  Reliability: mechanical failure looms too large among the causes of those comparatively few delays that do occur; and, often, there is an unacceptable reluctance to take sensible initiatives to limit the length of such delays. The larger-than-average proportion of unstaffed stations on this line (including, believe it or not, Stockton itself) means that the Public Address system must be used frequently and helpfully when delays do occur: but in practice that is just when the whole pa system goes dumb for long periods.

  3.  Comfort is highly variable, because many trains on this and other lines in North-Eastern England are still formed by 4-wheeled railbuses—including, too often, trains that link Carlisle with Middlesbrough or even beyond (106 miles to Middlesbrough: over 150 miles if, as I directly experienced on Thursday June 6, one of these railbuses from Carlisle also goes on from Middlesbrough to York, using the high-speed East Coast Main Line for its last 30 miles).

  4.  When a proper bogie-wheeled unit such as a Class 156 turns up, comfort is far greater—though, again, the end-to-end journey-length of some of these services only serves to point out their crying need for refreshment facilities on board for at least part of the run. This applies particularly, but by no means solely, to the 190-mile journey of the 6.34 Dumfries-Newcastle-Middlesbrough-York, also one of several trains in our region about whose bizarre routes we shall comment (adversely) below, under the second main Term of Reference.

  5.  Frequency may look quite good, now that Hartlepool-Sunderland-Newcastle trains have been boosted to half-hourly for much of the day. But two caveats need to be entered:

    (a) that now, as for many years, there remain anomalous, yawning gaps in both of the weekday peak periods, at the south end of the line in particular (nothing north from Middlesbrough to Sunderland between the 15.32 and the 17.1, for instance); and

    (b) that first trains along this highly-urbanised line are no earlier than 7.0 from either end, and last trains—even more inexcusably—leave Sunderland for Middlesbrough at 20.20 and Middlesbrough for Sunderland and Newcastle at 20.32 (earlier still on Sundays). All this means, inter alia, that a high number of medium-distance commuters, particularly those working in education, just cannot get to work and back by train satisfactorily, or indeed at all, no matter how hard they try. We know—we have talked to several of them on this very point at our occasional Rail Users' Surgeries and have taken up their requests, and our own, for better-spaced peak-hour services, plus at least one later train from Sunderland southward, to meet a known demand from those attending and/or teaching evening class sessions at its university. The rail operators' objections that a longer operating day would require longer signal-box hours than those worked at present, have been laughed to scorn, again and again, by every serving railwayman to whom we have put them.

B—plans for investment in the tail network in the region, and whether they meet the needs of additional network capacity and other improvements.

  6.  The two largest conurbations in the North-East region centre on Newcastle-upon-Tyne and on Middlesbrough. The most direct rail link between these centres, however, includes the goods- only Ferryhill-Stillington-Norton (Stockton) section. Need we say more?

  7.  We are often told that the East Coast Main Line, from York to Newcastle via Darlington and Durham, is full to overflowing, and so more line capacity must be found elsewhere in the region. With this we could not agree more: but then, when even the Strategic Rail Authority goes on to talk about re-opening the Leamside line as a priority to this end, we part company, at least in the short-term.

  8.  Many of us have watched the Coast line decline from being a well-used secondary main line, for passengers originating mainly in (South Shields), Sunderland, Hartlepool and Stockton, travelling to and from London and other destinations all over England and Wales, to an insignificant branch worked by diesel multiple-units running to Middlesbrough and, until a few years ago, Darlington. This was part of a Beeching-era policy-decision to concentrate as much traffic as possible on the York-Darlington-Newcastle route, regardless of the extra travel time and inconvenience that Tees-siders in particular (over 400,000 of them) thereby suffered.

  9.  This mentality survives too healthily in too many rail operating circles: it was as if rail management thought that those who could not afford to run a car to drive to and from the main line at Darlington did not deserve to be allowed on a train anyway. Introduction of direct Middlesbrough-York-Leeds- Manchester-Liverpool Transpennine services in 1992 did a lot to combat this attitude, it is true, but the fact remains that too much reliance is still put on Darlington and the so-called high-speed route to London.

  10.  This East Coast line "congestion" is why we urge far greater use of the Coast line south from Sunderland, and of the full route beyond Middlesbrough to Redcar and Saltburn, at least for extension of the Transpennine network. [At a later stage (as recommended, by implication, in the recently-published Regional Transport Strategy), through train services between Tees-side and London must be introduced: we comment on this more fully below, under the "Economic and Social Development" heading.] Meanwhile, we know of no operator whose plans for new Transpennine franchises include any such extensions in their portfolios, except for First Keolis, which includes an "Aspiration" to serve Sunderland and the Coast line with direct Transpennine services from 2004.

  11.  We have long been trying to persuade operators, particularly Arriva (Northern), to extend the Transpennine network along the Coast, again in response to voluble complaints about the grim difficulties that face anyone in, say, Hartlepool wishing to use rail to travel south. From time to time, extensive engineering along the aforementioned East Coast Main Line has caused some diversions, at week-ends, of the Liverpool-Newcastle-Sunderland "Transpennine" trains away from the Darlington route and along the Coast, through Stockton and Hartlepool, non-stop to Sunderland. All such trains reach Sunderland over 20 minutes earlier than they would do normally. Yet at no time has the Transpennine operator taken the opportunity to test fully the market for through services on this route by stopping the diverted trains at Stockton and Hartlepool, despite frequent requests by "Coastliners", and despite the minimal risk and extra expense that the operator would incur.

  12.  Our case for trying this out is supported by the fact that fully 60% (if not more) of Hartlepool station booking-office's ticket revenue derives from rail journeys starting and finishing at Darlington or Durham. In other words, quantifiable numbers of Hartlepool residents are happy to buy tickets there, so could be expected to use a direct, faster and high-quality Transpennine train service from it, too, if only it existed.

  13.  We suspect that Arriva (Northern) is frightened of letting anyone living in this area find out how much quicker their local Coast route could be for so many rail journeys. Our evidence is the galling fact that most of these diverted "Transpennine" trains do actually stop in Stockton station, for crew-changing purposes, in both directions. No official word of this has ever been breathed to the travelling public, except by friendly rail staff at, say, York, to those changing from a London line train, Members of our User Group have often seen several grateful people alighting at Stockton much earlier than expected, from trains whose existence had been kept a dark secret. We are at our collective wits end to find any honourable reason for the operator's reticence over this, never mind its refusal to stop at Hartlepool (on a sharp and speed-limited curve) either. So much for privatisation releasing entrepreneurial flair!

  14.  So what is so bad about present services southwards from Hartlepool and Stockton? Firstly, they in no case take the shortest possible route, via Stockton and Eaglescliffe, to York: most trains south from Hartlepool go no further than Middlesbrough, a half-hour journey. For York or Darlington, passengers change at Thornaby (25 minutes away) and hope not to miss their next train, to Darlington (20-25 minutes) or direct to York (55 minutes): total journey-times to the main line, an hour (Darlington) or almost one and a half hours (York), Some few trains actually do form a through service to or from York, but only after diverting into and out of Middlesbrough. The journey-time thereby is extended to 100 minutes no less, for what would be 60 miles, and should need little over 60 minutes from Hartlepool, by the most direct rail route, And, quite apart from the confusion and exasperation caused to passengers and rail staff alike by this needless "inning-and-outing" to Middlesbrough, the trains concerned become so circuitous, end to end, that unwitting passengers joining them at, say. Newcastle, because their destination- blinds say "York", but not "all stations and via Middlesbrough" too, gain a dangerously-jaundiced view of the Coast route as slow, low-grade and uncomfortable, and usually vow' never to use such trains again. "Illogical" train-routes that incorporate Middlesbrough—visiting traps for the unwary include the 6.34 Dumfries-York (mentioned at 4 above), and ones between Hull and Hexham or between Carlisle and York. This is just absurd—and, as far as we can see, is found only among train-services in North-Eastern England. Yet we know of no plans by Arriva to rationalise these, or introduce any other, Coast line services, to bring journey-times down to the competitive level that could so easily be theirs. We conclude that plans for investment in our area are at best inadequate and at worst non-existent. A rail-service-pattern that in all seriousness can recommend London-bound passengers from Hartlepool to travel the 30 miles northward to Newcastle and a train-change there is, frankly, the mark of a rail management that has taken leave of its collective senses. Their policies for passenger rail traffic in no way even begin to challenge the continuing growth or private motoring, even here in the supposedly economically-depressed North East, and we deplore them accordingly. See also below.

C—the influence of rail services on the economic and social development in the region

  15.  Does this mean the influence now, or the influence that rail services could have? There is a world of difference, as those who have waded patiently through the foregoing, will, we hope realise. From time to time we have heard of attempts to move Government offices, or other large-scale organisations, away from the London area to the North-East. Rarely, if ever, have these come to fruition— and one reason could be that the families affected have taken one look at the poor train services locally, and/or the nonexistent through train services to London, and refused outright to move here. As mentioned at 10, the recently-published Regional Transport Strategy for North-East England does at long last recognise that lack of direct London services could be holding back the development of Tees-side and the Durham Coast areas. Sadly, GNER has little inclination to add to its network east of Darlington, and Hull Trains, who did look into adding Middlesbrough to its range of London services, found that it would need a subsidy to do this successfully. Virgin Trains has floated ideas about linking London, Nottingham, South Yorkshire and Middlesbrough with a train service whose course is novel to say the least, but this was a long- term hope rather than a serious proposal now.

  16.  The best bets, then, for London direct seem to be partly a subsidy to Hull trains to serve Middlesbrough and partly the inclusion of some Northallerton-STOCKTON-Ferryhill services in GNER's plans to expand Anglo-Scottish services generally. This latter would sit neatly with Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit's idea of a fast Newcastle-Middlesbrough(Redcar-Saltburn) service along the goods-only Norton- Stillington-Ferryhill line referred to at six, and the whole section, including the Saltburn line. would benefit from electrification as well. (Yes. we know Stockton station would need lengthening and rebuilding generally, but its present condition is too disgraceful to be allowed to continue unchanged. See also below.)

  17.  We continue with a list of local improvements that would all contribute much to social, if not to economic, development in our area. They are:

    —  new or re-opened lines to Guisborough in this area, and to Ashington and Blyth further north:

    —  new or re-opened stations at Riverside Football Stadium (alongside the Saltburn line, three quarters of a mile east of Middlesbrough) and at South Cleveland Hospital, in Berwick Hills, on the Middlesbrough-Whitby line:

    —  a far more frequent service between Middlesbrough and Nunthorpe (four and a half fully built-up miles, parallel to the route of the recently rejected East Middlesbrough Corridor, alias new road, proposal):

    —  trains that link Stockton directly with Eaglescliffe (3 miles) and Yarm (5 miles), either as part of a new local rail service, or incorporated into the suggested "Transpennine" service-extensions (cf 11, 12, and 13 above):

    —  later, and at times more frequent, trains on the Saltburn line, particularly if Arriva Transpennine's proposed round-the-clock Middlesbrough-Manchester Airport service is ever introduced.

  18.  And the potential franchise operators? We hope to fix a date for First/Keolis to discuss Northern Franchise ideas with us, early in July. They have, so far, dealt with us fairly well. Arriva Trains (Northern), however, has not. It emerged from its vast driver shortages only to antagonise, simultaneously, its booking-clerks and its conductor-guards, causing both to take intermittent strike action recently. Its management has since used bullying tactics against the conductors to such an extent that we now fear a mass exodus of these vital rail staff members to other companies with better working conditions. Arriva also wrote to User Groups such as ours, blaming the unions for making unreasonable demands and assuming that we automatically agreed with the management view. When we wrote back to say (a) that we did not, and (b) that we would like to discuss the pros and cons of the staff and the management case in more detached detail, Arriva's managing director curtly refused to come anywhere near us, thereby also antagonising some of his most loyal customers!

  19.  It is indeed worrying to reflect that, over the last 30 years or more, the main obstacles to growth in rail passenger traffic on North-east services off the so-called "East Coast main line have been set up by rail management. Many Tees-siders, in particular, would be delighted to use trains more often if only they were better publicised and more convenient to use. Yet Arriva seems to shy totally away from publicising even its better quality trains, never mind the many very reasonable Day Return fares it offers. Instead, it spends money on frequent glossy Newsletters telling User Groups round here what marvellous improvements it is making in West Yorkshire, and, latterly, using fully a quarter of an A4 page to criticise in detail its Conductors for refusing to accept peanuts in place of living wages (an approach that is hardly the hallmark of constructive management, we think).

  20.  Meanwhile, for the third year running, not a single official rail timetable sheet has been put up at Stockton's station, itself a desolate and even menacing structure, difficult of access though quite centrally placed in the town itself. Instead, it has been left to "COASTLINERS" to produce a "Stockton Train Departures" summary leaflet, with some example fares, too, and although such leaflets do not always last very long when put up at the station itself, we have also kept Stockton Tourist Information office adequately supplied with them, as evidently a surprising number of visitors ask there about local train services. Sadly, there are no records of the subsequent reaction of these people to the realities of local train use: suffice to say that Arriva only seems to post notices at Stockton to say when it is not going to run trains, eg just before RMT strike days, and to include in these notices a subjectively moralistic homily on the wickedness of greedy rail staff at the same time, This is hardly the behaviour of a rail operator that seriously seeks to keep its franchise. It highlights, once again, our group's firmly held view that rail patronage, short and long distance alike, to and from Tees-side, Wearside and all points between, is nothing like as great as it could be, thanks to a hopelessly defeatist and indolent attitude of a succession of local rail managers over the past three decades.

  21.  So we welcome, with open arms, Parliament's decision to hold an Inquiry into Northern Rail Services at this stage, and we hope that constructive action to improve these services beyond present recognition will be taken as soon as possible, as a result of what we and many others have written, Nothing less will have any impact on the increasing gridlock of our road network.

P J Walker

Liaison Officer on behaIf of "COASTLINERS"

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