Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by CPRE North East Regional Group (REN 39)


The Government's and Strategic Rail Authority's commitment to improving rail services?

  1.  To date, the Strategic Rail Authority has played a very low-key role in relation to improvements to rail infrastructure and services within the North East region. Rail infrastructure schemes have been left very much in the hands of local authorities and the regional assembly to lead on and drive forward. In our view, much of this lack of a northern focus arises because the SRA has no northern office.

  2.  Both the TransPennine and the Northern franchise renewals seem to be based on providing a minimum service. There is a clear demand for increased frequency of service on some local routes and the need for improved local rail services across the region has been identified in multimodal studies and the emerging Regional Transport Strategy. However, it does not appear that the opportunity to develop or expand the service or the network is being grasped.

  3.  Neither the Government nor the SRA appear to recognise the need to invest in and expand the rail network in order to achieve the overall transport targets relating to congestion and pollution. Investment in the SE of England may be essential but it must not be at the expense of the North. A modest funding switch from highways to rail would adequately meet the need of northern rail projects.

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

  4.  The extension of the existing franchises because of the slow and cumbersome nature of the franchising process has blighted development of the rail services, both the InterCity services on the ECML and the local services.

  5.  As advocated in the recent Al North of Newcastle Multimodal Study, the existing GNER and Virgin train timetables could be adapted, with negligible real cost, to give a good service between the towns in Northumberland and also providing practicable connections both to Edinburgh and to stations south of Newcastle. However, neither operator appears prepared to consider such changes with franchise pending.

  6.  In some circumstances, 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 deplorable state of affairs must be avoided in the proposed new franchises and the SRA should engage now with Arriva and its Unions to help resolve the current disputes.

  7.  We believe that such issues could be averted if SRA took a more active interest in the implementation of franchises after they have been issued. This should not be merely a matter of monitoring compliance, but should involve a lively awareness of how the franchise is generating customer satisfaction.

  8.The separation of the TransPennine services from the other services in the North is incomprehensible to most observers when the clear need is for fewer franchises and closer working between operating companies. But, whatever the franchise arrangement, the services provided should form an integrated network with seamless connections between the local services and between the local services and InterCity routes regardless of operator.

  9.  The Northern franchise must be let on the basis of best value not minimum service, with clearly defined improvements in services over the period of the franchise. This must include a commitment to new rolling stock on all parts of the network, improved frequencies, and clearly identified capacity improvements. Close integration of services with the new TransPennine Express franchise, and ECML InterCity services (GNER, Virgin) are essential.

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

  10.  Local rail services in the North East have been very much the "poor relation" of the rail network: inadequate investment has left us with a poor rail infrastructure off the ECML and a lack of diversionary routes and facilities. The investment strategy of successive train operators has led to a lack of staff and a lack of trains, resulting in chronic unreliability and unpunctuality. The quality of trains is poor with a heavy over-reliance on "Pacer" units with little evidence of the promised higher quality trains.

  11.  We are concerned that SRA has not used its franchising powers to effect improvements in this area.

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

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

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

  15.  The train operators have started consultation exercises involving their customers. However we feel that the SRA could usefully develop a programme of route by route consultations involving the TOCs, Railtrack and all user and supporting agencies along the lines of the Route Management Strategy studies carried out by the Highways Agency.

  16.  Ideally, a regional rail development plan should be established for the region linked to similar plans in the other northern regions and Scotland. This plan should be developed by regional partnerships of the railway industry, local and regional authorities, and business/community interests with the SRA taking the lead.

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

  17.  We are unaware of any SRA-led plans to meet the need for additional network capacity and other improvements, even though this need has been identified in multimodal studies and in the emerging Regional Transport Strategy. Such plans as there are all seem to be driven by local authorities (g Ashington-Blyth-Tyne, Leamside) and, without active support from the SRA, are taking a very long time to materialise.

  18.  The Durham Coast line which serves major centres of population such as Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton and Middlesbrough has been starved of investment and hence over a million people are denied a realistic alternative to road travel. 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 Al Alnwick bypass.

  19.  The number of diversionary routes and lines is inadequate. Usually buses are used to provide a (inadequate) substitute service whenever there is a problem. The SRA should ensure that disruptions are increasingly overcome by the use of alternative rail services, not by the use of buses.

Influence of rail services on the economic and social development in the region?

  20.  Car ownership in the North East is low but rising. It should be an objective of the SRA within the overall transport plan, not to reduce car ownership but to reduce the need for car use to make rail-appropriate journeys. This is particularly the case in rural areas. Improved local rail services together with improved, cost-effective car parking provision at rural stations could make a significant contribution to modal shift.

  21.  Reliable, cost-effective rail services are potentially attractive across the social spectrum and provide a better opportunity for a socially-integrated modal shift than bus services or road pricing schemes. The demand is there for local rail services in the North East to replace commuting by car to provide feeder services to the InterCity services on the ECML and to form part of an integrated transport system for the rural areas. Under current franchise operation, these demands are not being met, and in our view, the new franchise arrangements are missing an opportunity too.

  22.  More bus-rail links should be developed, possibly by bus operators being given incentives to serve railway stations. More through ticketing and interavailable tickets covering not only rail and normal buses, but also postbuses, taxis and other rural schemes, and possibly combined parking and rail tickets at rural stations.

  23.  The relatively simple recommendation (in the A1 North of Newcastle Multimodal Study) to have ECML InterCity services stopping more frequently at stations between Newcastle and Edinburgh would dramatically enhance the social, cultural and economic life of the Northumberland towns along the ECML. In particular, it would provide a significant boost to tourism in the county.

  24.  In short, the lack of targeted investment in the railways of the region represents a lost opportunity for both economic and social development.

Nic Best

Regional Policy Officer

CPRE North East Regional Group

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