Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by RPC North Western England (REN 33)



  The Rail Passengers Committee North Western England represents passengers using train services provided, in the main, by First North Western, Virgin Cross Country and VirginWest Coast, plus to a lesser extent Arriva Trains (Merseyside) and Arriva Trains (Northern). There are also a smaller number of services provided by Central Trains and Wales and the Borders.

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


  First North Western (FNW) is the provider of the majority of commuter services in North Western England, especially in the Greater Manchester travel-to-work area.

  1.1.1  First North Western have reduced incidences of Signals Passed at Danger (SPADs) but trespass and vandalism remain a concern together with engineering materials and construction debris left by the trackside.

  1.1.2  FNW punctuality and reliability has improved but with wide disparity between particular routes. In April 2001, six of the eight service groups were performing around the Passengers Charter target of 90% of trains arriving at their destination within five minutes of timetabled time (or 10 minutes in the case of Long Distance and North West Inter-Urban services). This followed a serious decline in performance between October 2001 and January 2002.

  1.1.3  The cause of delays divides 50/50 between Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and Railtrack. Infrastructure problems have impacted on performances with track circuit problems, failed signals, faulty track or points and leaves on the line.

  1.1.4  The increase in the number of services using routes which were "rationalised" during British Rail cutbacks, has resulted in serious pathing problems and knock-on delays. Route capacity into and out of Manchester is severely constrained.

  1.1.5  First North Western's 27 new trains, the 100mph Class 175 Coradia Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs), have contributed towards performance problems. The Class 175s, commissioned by FNW from Alstom, have been generally well received in terms of carriage lay-out, seating arrangements, leg-room etc. However the Coradias were launched with unproven reliability having been delivered six months late by Alstom. FNW planned to have all 27 trains in service, yet the maximum number has been around 18. Reliability has been 10,500 kilometres per train casualty (ie causing a delay of more than three minutes or a cancellation) as opposed to a projected 70,000km.

  1.1.6  FNW ordered a mix of three and two-car units for its new fleet and this, plus the move away from corridor rolling stock (meaning a front end connection is not possible and thus reducing operational flexibility), has not helped alleviate overcrowding. In addition, the late delivery and poor performance of the Class 175s has delayed FNW plans to phase out, or cascade, older rolling stock. There is an industry-wide shortage of rolling stock but no apparent industry-wide plan to cascade displaced stock to relieve overcrowding. Class 101 slam-door DMUs still operate on some routes and there is continued overcrowding in the Manchester travel-to-work area during peak times notably on the following routes: Bolton corridor, North Cheshire, Ashton-under Lyne, Hope Valley, Buxton and Rochdale-Oldham.

  1.1.7  The success of the Metrolink light rail network in Greater Manchester indicates that service frequency is key to building patronage. Where the train (or in this instance the tram) runs every 15 minutes or, better still, every 10 minutes or less, passenger confidence grows. Clearly, reliability becomes less of an issue if a cancellation only results in a short wait. Infrastructure improvements to enable more frequent train services are desperately needed. In the meantime, progression to three-car trains as standard (or four car where there are overcrowded three cars at present), would dramatically reduce overcrowding and attract new passengers.

  1.2.1  Virgin Trains operate the West Coast and Cross Country franchises. Both have suffered from poor punctuality and reliability.

  1.2.2  West Coast performance has struggled to return to pre-Hatfield levels and the continuing West Coast Mainline (WCML) upgrade, and associated engineering blockades, have had a detrimental impact. Fleet reliability of the ageing electric locomotives has deteriorated and, when diversions are necessary, diesel power is required as alternative routes are not electrified. Key bottlenecks on the West Coast route, which will see more traffic on completion of PUG 1, also contribute to performance difficulties.

  1.2.3  Work continues to upgrade the WCML for 125mph running. The final cost has escalated massively during the project, the most recent estimate being £l0billion. Virgin has commissioned newPendolino tilting trains which will be capable of running at 140mph should PUG2 go ahead. This should improve performance but, in the meantime, West Coast performance remains below Charter Standard.

  1.2.4  Virgin's West Coast fares regime is highly unsatisfactory. Virgin has increased the unregulated Open fares at an alarming rate, in order to suppress demand for journeys during peak times. For example, the cost of a Standard Class Open Manchester—London return ticket rose by 67% between 4 January 1998 and 20 March 2001. It now stands at £172. In addition, the "window" during which passengers can use regulated Saver tickets has been further restricted. It is now not possible to reach London from North Western England by train before 13.00hrs using a Saver ticket. The RPC has contended that this policy represents an abuse of Virgin's monopoly West Coast position, to the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR).

  1.2.5  Virgin Cross Country train services suffer from similar problems to the West Coast: infrastructure shortcomings plus an ageing fleet of locomotives which frequently fail. Following years of poor performance Virgin has recently introduced new diesel Voyager DMUs. These are a step forward but we have concerns about seating layout and capacity, lack of luggage space, provision of toilets and excessive engine noise. Yet these units are to be used on some of the longest journeys on the British railway network.

  1.2.6  Early indications are that Voyagers are proving more reliable than the Class 175s, perhaps because they have undergone a more rigorous testing regime, resulting in improved performance on Virgin Cross Country.

  1.3.1  Arriva Trains (Northern) operate Trans Pennine Express and more local services. The dominant feature affecting performance has been train crew shortages. The lack of drivers led to widespread cancellations during 2001 and ATN's mitigation plan dealt with this by cancelling many services and replacing them with buses. The Leeds-Morecambe route was deprived of many of its train services during this period, and Settle-Carlisle was also affected. ATN is still suffering driver shortages although the acute phase of this crisis has passed with the training and recruitment of additional drivers. The shortage is partially caused by driver poaching between train operators, including the freight operators.

  1.3.2  In order to solve the driver shortage ATN has increased wages. ATN guards are currently involved in a long-running industrial dispute, causing widespread train cancellations, seeking pay parity with ASLEF drivers. This dispute remains unsolved at present, and impinges seriously on performance.

  1.4.1  Arriva Trains (Merseyside) (ATM) operates the Merseyrail network on Merseyside. Performance has suffered a decline this year. This follows two crisis periods caused by excessive wheel wear in recent years and a lamentable failure to deal with this problem quickly. Other factors contributing to poor performance include train crew shortages (which have been largely addressed) and fleet reliability problems, owing to lack of spare capacity. With increased station dwell times necessary to allow sufficient time for door opening and closing, a new more realistic timetable (involving longer journey times) has been introduced. This should result in an improvement in performance.

  1.5.1  Quality of stations: the majority of stations in the North West are unstaffed and, of these, the majority are run by FNW. However stations in the Merseytravel (PTE) area are staffed seven days a week, from first train to last train.

  1.5.2  Outside the PTE areas the management of stations leaves much to be desired with little or no CCTV, information posters often out of date, no help points, public telephones sometimes located outside stations, cleaning and tidiness poor and inadequate car parking facilities.

  1.5.3  The SRA's Modern Facilities at Stations investment programme applies to staffed stations only and there is no similar scheme for unstaffed stations, which include large towns such as Frodsham and Kendal.

  1.5.4  Many staffed stations (eg Ellesmere Port and Morecambe) are only staffed until lunchtime during the week. A significant increase in the number of staffed stations and a general improvement in facilities, and the way they are managed, are required to provide a satisfactory service and attract more passengers.

  1.6.1  Information outside PTE areas information, whether it be posters on stations (sometimes out of date or missing), lack of help points or announcements on trains, is often of a very poor standard.

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

  2.1  Recent major investment in railways in North Western England has been largely confined to the West Coast Mainline upgrade (PUG 1). The costs have been astronomical, and the delivery of the contract has been dogged by problems, calling into question value for money. It appears that whatever investment eventually does come the way of the North West will be dependent on the final cost of PUG 1. Additional works may be necessary to address capacity/freight balance issues and other possible pinch points such as Preston-Lancaster. The absence of urgently needed Euxton Junction improvements (grade separation of fast and slower services) is a critical omission, not only for West Coast services, but also for Trans Pennine services which require access to this stretch of WCML.

  2.2  As a means of bringing investment into the railways, the Rail Passenger Partnership (RPP) has not been a conspicuous success in the region. Very few bids have been implemented, partly because of the lack of resources to develop such bids. The RPP together with the new Rail Performance Fund (RPF), whilst valuable in terms of enhancing services, cannot address the major infrastructure works which are required to increase operational flexibility, improve line speeds and eliminate bottlenecks.

  2.3  The Greater Manchester Strategic Rail ("Hub") Study outlined the key improvements which are necessary to address capacity issues and unlock the potential for rail, and yet it barely rates a mention in the SRA's Strategic Plan. The Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE) has announced its intention to draw together a cohesive programme for improvements to the local rail network. This will be outlined in the Greater Manchester Local Transport Plan Progress Report to be submitted to central Government in August 2002.

  2.4  Railtrack's Network Management Statement of earlier years gave some indication of schemes which Railtrack wished to progress to enhance the network, but there is precious little of this detail in the Strategic Plan.

  2.5  The Strategic Plan places undue emphasis on strategic routes (ie the former inter city routes) as a means to achieving the 50% increase in passenger kilometres required by the 10 Year Plan, to the exclusion of the rest of the network. This could further distort investment priorities towards London and south eastern England, where the problems of overcrowding etc are said to be at their most acute. The regions, by contrast, lack any systematic recording of information to establish the extent of overcrowding.

  2.6  The SRA emphasis is also in danger of creating a "two tier" railway in Northern England with the Trans Pennine Express/Northern Rail franchise split. This involves extracting certain key Trans Pennine routes (plus others, some of which are North-South rather than East-West) and aggregating them into a new franchise, with the remainder of the services forming the Northern franchise. We remain to be convinced of the merits of this approach but accept that the SRA intend to go ahead with it.

  2.7  The Strategic Plan states that one of the tests to which industry reforms will be subject is: will they simplify the overall structure of the railway? Clearly in the case of TPE/Northern reform this will not simplify matters in any regard (be it manpower and rolling stock deployment, timetabling etc), especially given that it will create additional interfaces inside an already fragmented rail industry. Moves towards greater timetable integration could be set back under this new proposal.

  2.8  Given the SRA strategy towards consolidation of franchises we would contend that this logic should apply to services radiating from Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds. Instead, the TPE/Northern separation will mean a loss of economies of scale and that more will have to be invested, merely to keep services at their present level. The Trans Pennine Express franchise budget leaves few resources for development once the additional operating costs of running these services as a separate entity has been taken into account. If there are to be separate franchises, why not go ahead with one common operator? If not, we strongly urge that any contract must compel the respective TOCs to work together.

  2.9  It could be said that the industry has reached the stage where the "soft" targets in terms of low cost solutions to operational problems have been, to a greater extent, addressed. The desperate need is to eliminate infrastructure pinch points, those key deficiencies in the region's rail infrastructure which seriously impact on performance, and also to develop medium and long term strategies for expansion of the network. There is little evidence, as yet, that the SRA's approach will assist delivery of the necessary improvements. There is little, if any, indication of how such proposals are to be developed, or where the funding might come from given that such schemes will require major capital investment, above and beyond what is likely to be available via RPP and RPF finances.

  2.10  For example, the proposed Western rail link to Manchester Airport would mean better rail access from Cheshire, North Wales, Northern England and Merseyside. It does not feature in current SRA thinking despite the stated commitment to improving surface links to airports and the growing regional importance of Manchester Airport. A further indicative list of some infrastructure improvements which have been proposed in our region, none of which appear to feature in current SRA thinking, is provided at Appendix 1.

3.  The influence of rail services on the economic and social development in the region.

  3.1.1  Commuter travel: rail plays a crucial role in sustaining the economy and settlement patterns of major cities, and in particular the health of many city centres. Without a strong rail network there will be enormous pressure for dispersed lower density development, increasing pressure on the Green Belt.

  3.1.2  Manchester (which has the most developed rail network in Britain outside of London) and Liverpool could not function as major cities without their railways. Manchester could not accommodate an expanding workforce without the ability to bring in commuters from outside the city by rail.

  3.1.3  In the PTE areas, where fares are kept lower, rail plays a key role in social inclusion by providing low cost access to jobs and services.

  3.2.1  Business travel: rail makes a major contribution to sustaining regional economies by enabling businesses in the region to access each other and London.

  3.2.2  Especially where rail delivers business travellers directly into the city centre there is a journey time benefit compared to road. This has direct economic consequences as longer journey times mean less productivity of labour. It also provides relief to the road networks in the cities concerned and reduced requirement for the use of valuable city centre land for car parking.

  3.2.3  It is possible to work whilst travelling by rail, a key benefit making rail travel more productive.

  3.3.1  Leisure and Tourism: one in three trips on the regional networks are for tourism and leisure purposes. The rail tourist spends more per head than those visitors who arrive by car or other modes. Rail is the preferred choice of the majority of overseas visitors who, again, have a higher per capita expenditure. Rail therefore brings tourism benefits for many rural and seaside destinations and the further development of services (eg the limited service on the Cumbrian Coastal route is reduced further on Sundays and there is no service at all between Greater Manchester and the Yorkshire Dales).

  3.4.1  Social inclusion: around 30% of the UK population does not have access to a car and thus improvements to the road network will have little or no direct benefit for them. However, rail travel is, in principle open to all, and particularly in areas where the Passenger Transport Executives subsidises fares, more accessible.

  3.4.2  The lack of links to the national rail network (or sub-standard links), restrain economic development in many rural and former industrial areas such as Northern Lake District and North East Lancashire. The absence of railway stations on existing rail routes, contributes further to isolation and social exclusion.

  3.4.3  Equally, given the above points, direct and quick rail access to London, and Europe, is a key factor assisting regional development. The RPC NW fully supports proposals for a new North South high speed rail link. It could open up a new route from the North West to the Capital and potentially beyond. The continuing suppressed demand for rail travel, which the present North-South routes cannot relieve, clearly makes this a key proposal in the growth of passenger rail transport.

  3.4.4  The proven benefits of electrification in terms of creating the opportunity for modal shift, and reducing pollution and road congestion, need to be positively embraced in any future thinking. The absence of such a strategy has resulted in each individual train operator effectively "going it alone", and ordering diesel trains. Not only is the prospect of increased electrification of the rail network receding, but also in the here and now less use is being made of those limited parts of the network which are electrified.

10 June 2002

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