Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence


Memorandum by Connex Transport (FOR 113)

THE FUTURE OF THE RAILWAYS

INTRODUCTIONABOUT CONNEX

  Connex South Eastern runs train services in Kent, South London and parts of East Sussex, servicing 182 stations and covering 773 km of track. The company runs approximately 1,700 train journeys a day and carries around 120,000 commuters into London every weekday.

  Connex Transport is part of Veolia (formerly Vivendi), a major international player in the transport industry, currently running commuter railways, in Germany, Sweden, Melbourne (Australia) and Boston (USA), as well as light rail in France, Spain and Ireland, long distance routes in Germany and buses in the UK, France and Washington (USA). All together, Connex operates transport networks in 22 countries. Its 2002 annual turnover was £2.1 billion, making it one of the biggest transport groups in Europe.

IS THE RAIL SYSTEM A VITAL COMPONENT OF THE PUBLIC TRANSPORT NETWORK, OR AN OUTMODED FORM OF TRANSPORT?

  There are three different types of rail passenger and three distinct answers to the question. The danger is that the rail network is seen as one service meeting a similar need.

  The vast majority of customers of a company such as Connex are commuters, travelling along high-volume, high-frequency routes into Central London. Typically their journeys are under an hour and generally the main issues for them are time, reliability and comfort in that order. Most of them have no alternative means of transport to get to work. There is little question that the commuter railway is a vital part of big cities like London. Rising housing costs mean people are forced to live farther and farther away from the town centre where they work.

  The second type of rail user is the long-distance rail user—customers of Virgin or GNER for example. For them speed and comfort on board are key. The competition is car, coach and air travel. These services can only compete in the long term if there is massive investment in the infrastructure and faster trains to get to a French or German TGV style system where, for example, London to Manchester would be a 90 minute journey instead of the current 150 or 180 minutes. The French TGV system has proven, among other things, that within a three-hour journey range, passengers preferred the train over the plane. That is probably a good way to assess where a high-speed rail service would compete effectively with the airlines. Beyond that limit, there seems to be a stronger case to invest in air transport.

  The third type of passenger is the off-peak and rural traveller, usually travelling for leisure purposes. For them cost is the key determining factor and again rail competes with bus and car travel. However, there is considerable subsidy for rural rail services. In some other countries notably France, some rural rail services have been replaced by coaches which operate to the same strict timetable. In fact the timetable includes both rail and road services in a seamless way.

  We have to get over the idea that this is somehow downgrading the service—coaches are often more reliable, are much more flexible and can be just as comfortable as trains. They are also a lot cheaper for relatively small numbers of passengers. We can achieve considerable savings here in terms of money and capacity if we are prepared to bite the bullet and replace a lot of currently under-used rail services with timetabled coaches or buses.

IS THE PRESENT NETWORK THE RIGHT ONE; IF NOT, HOW SHOULD IT BE CHANGED?

  None of the British commuters or rail users would say that the current service is good enough, or even near to being good enough, so that's probably enough evidence that there is something wrong with our railway network.

  But if the current network is not good enough today, this does not mean that it has not improved since privatisation in some respects.

  Talking about Connex, there has been progress in such areas as:

    —  Reduction of train cancellations, especially the ones due to staff shortages. In 2001, driver shortage was one of the main problems in the South East of England. Today, we have more drivers than necessary, thanks to a huge effort to train new ones.

    —  Information to passengers, with a £20 million information system being installed last year in most of its 180 stations.

    —  New trains, with 210 carriages introduced to-date, and on track to replace the Mark 1 rolling stock by the end of 2004.

  Needless to say, many mistakes have been made along the way, like raising passenger expectations too high and too quickly, putting a brand on a service which quality was not under control and sometimes beyond control (infrastructure problems), failure to handle train disruptions properly, and to some extend a failure to listen to passengers, certainly in the early years of privatisation.

  But if there was one thing to be changed now, it should be Network Rail: let's face it, the industry cannot succeed without a good infrastructure. If Network Rail succeeds, we will deliver a better service. But if they don't, then passengers will continue to be stuck on trains because of infrastructure problems, and the fact that the trains are new won't make it any better, and probably worse.

  Reforming Network Rail does not seem an option, after several changes already, but breaking it up into regional companies would have at least the benefit of spreading the risk: like train companies. Small infra companies would be more decentralised, more accountable and more manageable, some would succeed, showing the way forward for others.

WHAT SORT OF TRAFFIC IS THE NETWORK BEST USED FOR?

  As above, the passengers who are perhaps most important are those who rely on the train every day to get from home to work. Anything threatening commuter rail services has an immediate impact on millions of people and thousands of businesses. Commuter towns around London and other major cities rely on their rail links as the basis for the local economy. There is, in my opinion, a clear case in terms of UK competitiveness for investing in and subsidising commuter rail services. As an example, it is difficult to imagine a major company planning to set up a new corporate HQ in Europe citing transport infrastructure problems as a reason not to go to Paris, Frankfurt or Brussels. Yet this would be the case in London.

HOW DOES THE UK NETWORK COMPARE WITH OTHER RAILWAYS, WHAT LESSONS CAN WE LEARN FROM OTHER COUNTRIES?

  Privatisation in the UK has brought in some great benefits among train companies, in terms of clarity of objectives, accountability of people, innovation, and some of those Train companies have clearly done well in terms of performance improvements. But we have barely scratched the surface compared to other continental or American networks in terms of maintenance, customer service, train cleanliness, marketing and overall quality of service.

  Connex for example runs railways in the USA, Australia, Sweden, Germany and other countries around the world. Most of time with vertical integration between operations and infrastructure. All of them deliver consistently good train performance and quality of service. The one country where we have not achieved what we (and the passengers) wanted is in the UK. It has been a steep learning curve for us, and I would not suggest that we could not have done some things better. But I believe that there are some fundamental problems of structure and attitude within the industry which have made our task more difficult, like:

    —  The fragmentation of the industry, leading to a difficulty to align strategies between operators, infra and rolling stock companies.

    —  Difficulty to reform and modernise. It seems that the only way to improve the system is by spending more money. But some networks and trains abroad are older, but more reliable, probably because they are better maintained.

    —  Difficulty to accept ideas from other industries. The rail industry lacks new talents. Is it because they don't want to work for the railways . . . or because the railways don't want them?

    —  An almost complete inability to communicate with the passengers. There is a lot of advertising, a lot of communication, but very few passengers manage to connect what they read and hear with what they experience day-in, day-out. That creates a lack of trust in the railway industry, which is almost unique in the world. Which other country talks so much about its railway system?

    —  Finally, because of the very structure of the industry, it is still almost impossible for private companies to plan for the long term, neither in terms of policy nor in terms of return on investment or profitability. As a consequence, they take on less and less risks, when they don't pull out of the rail market all together, which probably explains why the industry has become so risk-averse recently.

  In summary, the railways are absolutely necessary, at least in some parts of the country. They can improve a lot over the coming years, but that will require more reforming than funding, and a different way to involve stakeholders. In particular, we must improve the way we communicate with passengers and ask them to bear with us while the industry continues to make necessary improvements.

October 2003


 
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