Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Transport 2000 (RI 14)

  Transport 2000 welcomes the Committee's inquiry and the opportunity to submit evidence. Transport 2000 works for sustainable transport policies with less car and lorry traffic and greater use of walking, cycling and public transport. The organisation brings together a wide range of environmental and voluntary groups, trade unions and transport operators and also has contributions from local authorities and Passenger Transport Authorities. It has recently restarted the network "PLATFORM for Better Rail Services", which brings together local rail user groups and national voluntary organisations. PLATFORM aims to inform and where appropriate co-ordinate work on issues affecting rail users. Transport 2000 works closely with the Rail Passengers Council and Committees and has recently, with the RPC, carried out research for the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority on ways to promote integrated transport and door-to-door travel as part of the rail refranchising process.

  Transport 2000 has supported the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority. We argued at the time of rail privatisation that there was a need for such a strategic body to co-ordinate and set a framework for the fragmented rail industry and to develop the railways as part of an integrated transport policy. We have also supported the changes to the Regulator's role and powers now embodied in the Transport Bill.

RAILTRACK

  Most of our evidence will address the third part of the Committee's brief, on the SRA's role. First however, we would like to make some comments on Railtrack. Transport 2000 and those it works with have been concerned that in the past the company has not carried out properly its role as steward of the national rail network. There has been an apparent reluctance to spend on even basic maintenance or to invest in new or upgraded infrastructure. Railtrack's investment programme and criteria have been unclear. Changes in format and content of successive Network Management Statements have not helped in showing past, planned and possible investment. This has given rise to concern that Railtrack has been more interested in short term shareholder value than in long term enhancement of that value through capital investment. However, some of this was due to the structure of privatisation, with no lead body for investment projects with multiple users, and to the track access charges regime which did not reward Railtrack for increasing capacity or for improvements that led to passenger and freight growth. We believe that the creation of the SRA and the other changes in the Transport Bill will change this. Railtrack also now seems to be improving its project management and its renewals programme has increased, and it seems more generally to be taking a longer-term view.

THE STRATEGIC RAIL AUTHORITY'S ROLE

  Our comments on the SRA fall into two parts: comments on its strategic role in developing the rail network, and comments on the refranchising process and its effect on passengers.

1.  STRATEGY

   As we noted earlier, we see the need for the SRA to produce a strategy to develop the railway, and to act as the lead body for key developments where multiple users are involved. So far, the Authority in shadow form has launched the refranchising of rail services and has consulted on a strategy, due to be published in the autumn after the Government's ten-year plan for transport.

  This approach has its advantages: it means that ideas and private investment can be sought from operators for developing the network, and that the strategy can then be underpinned by this private investment and by the commitments to public funding expected in the ten-year plan. Already many innovative ideas have surfaced in the franchising process, including new facilities at stations, new bus links and new or reopened lines such as the high speed line proposed as part of Virgin's bid for the East Coast franchise.

  We are concerned however that this sequence may mean that big strategic decisions that must be taken by the Authority will be ducked or pre-empted. Examples of the strategic issues that need to be resolved include:

  Local versus long distance passenger travel: this issue has already arisen in the West Coast Main Line modernisation project, where there has been concern from local authorities and operators of local passenger services that their growth ambitions for local services will be squeezed off by the growth of inter-city trains. Similarly, in South London, there have been long term ambitions from local authorities and user groups for a high frequency "South London Metro" service to give the area the sort of rail service that the Underground gives to North London. These ambitions could be thwarted if the South Central franchise gives priority to longer distance commuter services. In some areas, the Authority is addressing these issues: a study, promoted by the sSRA in association with Centro and Railtrack, has examined West Midlands rail capacity.

  However, this issue raises broader public interest issues. Government planning policies, broadly endorsed by all parties, is to promote development on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and to have land use planning that reduces the need to travel. Long distance rail commuting fits this, and general sustainable development criteria, less well than local high frequency urban rail services.

  Passenger versus freight: the issue of freight capacity is also acute, and will be raised by others. In some areas the use of diversionary routes can help this problem (this is a feature of the East Coast Modernisation Project). In some cases, however, passenger growth ambitions will conflict with freight, and the SRA will ultimately have to take a view on the use of scarce capacity. The type of funding for railfreight also raises strategic issues. Freight operators and users have argued for funding to raise railfreight capacity and productivity, through higher gauge and heavier and longer trains, which current grants, which generally support particular flows, will not generally support.

  Relationship between the SRA and other plans: as a result of the Transport White Paper, every transport authority is producing Local Transport Plans, and Regional Transport Strategies are also being produced for the English regions. Many of those so far produced include plans or ambitions for rail or light rail developments, but the plans have not yet been finalised. The Government is also undertaking programmes of "multi-modal studies" and "roads based studies" looking at the range of options for solving congestion, safety or other traffic problems on the trunk road network. These studies already include a number of rail options.

  We are concerned that, although the sSRA is undertaking excellent external liaison work with councils, Regional Development Agencies etc, these various plans and strategies will not be fully integrated into the sSRA's strategic thinking, and that options they generate will not be part of the rail refranchising process.

  We have already found this to be an issue in the work we have done to stop the sale of land still owned by British Rail which may have a future transport use. Some sites with an obvious relevance to local transport plans or to multi-modal studies have been included on lists of sites to be sold. While we take comfort from Ministerial assurances that sites with a potential future transport use will not be sold, the absence of a strategic framework means that it is difficult to judge if sites may in fact have a future transport use.

  Links between the SRA and local development plans are also important. Real integration between transport and land use planning requires that large new housing or commercial developments near railway lines should, where possible, be planned with new stations or feeder bus services. The SRA's strategy needs to take account of planned new developments so that the railway can respond to changing travel patterns.

  Electrification: The issue of future traction for the railway also needs to be dealt with strategically. The issues have changed since the quality of diesel trains has improved and is now closer to electric trains, but electric trains still seem to be perceived as superior to diesel in passengers' eyes. We would expect decisions of 20-year franchises to be informed by a view of the pros and cons of different forms of motive power.

  Priorities: The SRA's strategy is also needed to allow the Authority to take a view and give a lead on the sequencing and priority for different infrastructure projects. There are over 200 separate rail infrastructure projects proposed in London by different operators and interests, and Railtrack is in no position to prioritise these. Only the SRA can do this.

REFRANCHISING AND THE NEED FOR CLEAR STRATEGIC CRITERIA

  All the issues raised above affect, and are affected by, the refranchising process. Decisions about which trains should get priority on different sections of track, and when it is justified to increase capacity, raise strategic and public interest issues which, we believe, it is the SRA's role to address and resolve. Without clear criteria on these issues, clearly linked to objectives and outputs from other transport and land use planning processes, we are concerned that the rail refranchising process will not be properly integrated with other planning processes or meet public policy objectives, especially at a regional and local level. Opportunities to use railways to reduce dependence on car and lorry traffic will therefore be lost.

  We would therefore like the Committee to recommend:

    —  the SRA should draw up and produce a strategic plan for the railways, covering the issues outlined, as soon as possible, and that this should inform, and be informed by relevant transport and land use planning processes;

    —  this strategy should include clear criteria for setting priorities for investment and for allocating track capacity between different types of train services;

    —  the SRA should in particular investigate the links between rail services and land use planning;

    —  there should be an urgent study of the case for future electrification, which should report in time to inform the process of letting relevant franchises;

    —  The Transport Bill should be amended to require the SRA to take account of Local Transport Plans in its strategy and policy-making, and also in letting franchises.

2.  PASSENGER INTERESTS AND REFRANCHISING

  Clearly one of the main interests of the Committee and the wider public is the impact of the SRA and of refranchising on the quality of rail services. Here we have a number of concerns.

  Criteria the sSRA is using to decide on the replacement of franchises: Throughout the privatisation era Transport 2000 has consistently argued that if a high quality railway is the goal, high standards need to be demanded through the mechanism of the franchise contracts. We fear that if high standards are not set in franchise contracts then the network will continue to be a patchwork of good and bad, with different operators adopting different standards and practices for key aspects of service. Not only will this mean varying quality of service, it will also militate against rail becoming a seamless, easy to use alternative to the car. The weaknesses of the existing franchise contracts is a key factor in so much of the disappointment in the quality of rail services that passengers have expressed since privatisation.

  We are also concerned that some key decisions on many of the key elements of the franchise contracts have already been taken without adequate option generation, discussion or consultation.

  Consultation: On 25 May the sSRA issued the second version of an "outline guide" to franchise replacement (which replaced the first version issued on 27 January) which sets out the sSRA's intentions on many of key issues, including fares, capacity, protection for services, passengers charter and performance. At no stage has there been any detailed and specific consultation on these issues (ie a consultation process which gave a context, a provisional view, a range of options, and which set out a clear timetable for consultation and decision making). Indeed the 27 January "outline guide" did not invite any response or indicate that an updated version would be issued. By contrast, the Office of the Rail Regulator, and increasingly the Rail Passengers' Council, operate a clear and transparent consultation procedure before taking critical decisions.

  Given the fundamental importance of issues like rail fares regulation—not just for the future of the railways but also for the Government's wider transport and social inclusion policies—Transport 2000 believes a more transparent consultation process is necessary, so a proper debate (which encompasses key bodies like this Committee) can be held.

  Passenger Service Requirements: We would be very disappointed if the existing PSRs were to be taken forward into new contracts. The PSRs are set at a lower level than the existing timetable and thus allow for considerable reductions in services. We acknowledge the sSRA's intention to commit franchisees to operate a similar mileage to that which they inherit, however, this would create two tiers of protection for services. A more reassuring option would be to extend the more comprehensive PSR protection to those services.

  We have long argued that the PSRs have not been justified by any thorough assessment or application of criteria. When first drawn up the PSRs took the last BR timetable and crudely reduced the number of services. We would hope that the sSRA would take a strategic overview of the potential of PSRs to build up an interlocking network of different tiers of services (InterCity, regional express, and local) where good connections and regular "clockface" frequencies are the norm.

  In busy urban areas we should be aiming for "turn up and go" frequencies where passengers no longer have to use a timetable. At the other end of the spectrum, we believe that an hourly frequency can now be justified on all but a few rural routes. Given that many routes (particularly secondary rural services) were reduced to a "skeleton" level prior to franchising, this has left a significant number of routes with very low frequencies, which are unattractive to passengers. Given the high standing costs of maintaining these lines, poorly patronised services require high subsidies. We believe that franchise replacement gives an opportunity to look afresh at these routes. Specifying a more frequent service which attracts significant usage is surely a better use of taxpayers money than subsidising a grudging, minimal service which attracts few users.

  PSRs for routes on Sundays and in the off-peak are often set at a very low level, indeed on a significant number of routes there is no requirement for any Sunday service, particularly in the Winter. Social change means that consumers expect services to be available when they need them, rather than when it is convenient for companies to provide them. A fresh look at PSRs might include upgrading the Sunday PSR to match the Saturday PSR. This would bring Britain into line with many other European networks where there is a common service pattern throughout the week. Similarly, many of our vibrant cities are now experiencing a third peak, as people return home in the late evening. Yet too often train frequencies and capacity are dramatically reduced in the evenings, with last trains leaving far too early.

  Finally, the first round of PSRs was very weak on connections. This is a problem area at present, because the "delay attribution" system gives operators an incentive to put the timekeeping of their own services above the need to hold sensible connections (for example branch line trains being held a minute or two to make a connection with a mainline train). We would have expected that sorting out connections would be an important priority for the SRA if the stated aim of an integrated network is to be achieved.

  Fares: We see this as a big strategic issue. The "replacement guide" envisages retaining the existing regulatory regime and will seek to encourage local and regional multi-modal ticketing schemes. However we believe there is a case for a more fundamental review and overhaul of national fares. Before addressing the problems that need to be tackled, it is worth emphasising the positive developments on fares that have occurred over recent years:

    —  discount advanced purchase tickets now means that passengers who can book ahead can take advantage of some extremely competitive fares;

    —  some companies have introduced some innovative and valuable new fares, such as discount fares for groups of four, which makes rail travel an option for those who would otherwise use a car;

    —  the principle of holding down key fares has now been firmly established.

  However, there are real problems too. Standard rail fares in Britain are among the most expensive in the world. "Journey chains", involving a string of trips, are prohibitively expensive because of the high cost of single fares. Return walk-up travel is also becoming more expensive as the cost of tickets like the SuperSaver escalates and more restrictions are placed on their use. Affordable, walk-up rail travel is key to making rail a viable alternative to the car. Rail needs to become easier to use, not more difficult and complicated, and one-way tickets need to be more affordable.

  Although some of the new tickets introduced by operators offer real value for passengers, the cumulative effect of so many new tickets is to create confusion and uncertainty. When there are 36 standard tickets between Gatwick Airport and London, we believe that the pendulum has swung too far towards ticket proliferation at the expense of the clarity and integrity of rail travel as a whole. Recent moves by train operators to simplify tickets into six "families" are welcome but do not go far enough.

  We would hope that the sSRA would use franchise replacement as an opportunity for a fresh look at fares. Overall we would like to see a more affordable and straightforward fares structure. This could include:

    —  Standardising the range of, and restrictions on, advance purchase tickets;

    —  Better protection for walk-up return tickets;

    —  A national public transport smartcard;

    —  A network of regional multi-modal travelcards serving both leisure and journey-to-work markets;

    —  Moves to make walk-up return tickets more affordable;

    —  A national railcard/loyalty card;

    —  National rates/standards for through bus ticketing (take-up of through rail/bus ticketing has been disappointing so far because of lack of public understanding and confidence).

INTEGRATED TRANSPORT: THE "SOFT" MEASURES

  We noted above Transport 2000's recent work for the sSRA. We were pleased to be commissioned to do this work, which took the form of a series of internal seminars and brainstorms on integrated transport in which we involved a diverse range of outside experts and representatives of interest groups. The sSRA's desire to ensure improvements in the whole journey experience from door-to-door and to reduce the perceived barriers to switching from car to public transport is very welcome and is reflected in the appendix to the "outline guide".

  However, there is a danger that the "soft" measures are seen as a desirable add-on, rather than a fundamental requirement. The sSRA currently has a unique opportunity to introduce some new network-wide benefits, which might begin to make more of an impact on the national consciousness than a divided (by company and area) railway has hitherto been able to achieve.

  Netherlands Railway's "Destination Customer" project shows what could be achieved. The Netherlands Railways has been set the target of increasing rail traffic by 50 per cent by 2010. However, it has decided that improving the door-to-door journey is easier than reducing station-to-station journey times. The focus now is on reducing total journey times, reducing uncertainty and increasing comfort. To do this they plan:

    —  to revitalise their existing train/taxi scheme (which for a £2 add on fare gives a taxi trip to the boundary of the towns served by 160 major stations);

    —  to spend £150 million on improving cycle parking; and

    —  to ensure that all stations guarantee a level of facilities depending on whether they are large, medium or small. So at the 46 largest stations there will be customer service teams, a car-free station forecourt, an easy walk to the city centre with clear signage, convenient cycle routes to and from the city centre, a staffed bicycle shed always open, left luggage and good connections with other public transport systems.

  Because of the relatively low cost of these improvements the Dutch rail authorities expect them to rapidly pay for themselves through the extra custom generated.

  It is the network-wide consistency which has already made schemes like the train/taxi a success (it accounts for 1.5 to 2 per cent of all rail traffic). In Britain integrated transport initiatives often lack such consistency, simplicity and stability. A good example of this is the many integrated bus/rail links now being operated, mostly under the banner "Journey Solutions". We welcome these links, but they are at present generally local initiatives with only limited national co-ordination. Although a number are successful, many are under-performing and are uneconomic. There is too much variation in quality, fares and performance leading to a lack of public awareness and confidence. To realise the potential of this growing but vulnerable network of bus/rail links, we need the sSRA to insist on some national regulation, with minimum standards, simplification and promotion.

  Quality facilities: At present it is unclear whether the sSRA will set and enforce conditions guaranteeing passengers a safe and high quality environment for passengers or whether it will continue with the OPRAF policy of specifying bare minimum requirements and trusting to the commercial zeal of operators to achieve the rest. Transport 2000 is of the view that if the whole industry is to consistently deliver a safe and high quality railway then this needs to be written into the contracts.

  The SQUIRE (Service Quality Incentive Regime) is a good illustration of the advantages of this approach. SQUIRE operates in PTE areas and covers quality standards both on trains and stations. Cleanliness, lighting, toilets, on-train announcements, seating and ticket offices are all monitored by PTE staff, against a benchmark by which penalties are imposed or incentive payments made. Although SQUIRE is not perfect, it is far superior to the protection for these key passenger priorities that exist outside PTE areas. In these areas the requirements for stations are very basic and not subject to a performance regime.

  A recent survey by the Rail Passenger Committee (formerly Rail Users Consultative Committee) for Eastern England ("Driving up Station Standards", February 2000) found that even the minimal franchise requirements that cover station and train facilities in this non-PTE region are frequently unmet. For example:

    —  28 per cent of all stations did not have a shelter on all platforms (the contract requires "weather proof, adequate waiting accommodation");

    —  10 per cent of stations did not display the double arrow rail symbol at the station entrance (a contractual requirement);

    —  only 54 per cent of stations had a core information poster which gave the telephone number of a local taxi firm (a contractual requirement);

    —  only 40 per cent of stations gave the telephone number and opening hours of the operator's disabled persons helpline (not a contractual requirement but part of the Regulator's code of practice on Disabled Persons Protection Policies which each TOC must have).

  With franchise contracts defining the railway for as long as 20 years we contend that the sSRA should be adopting a reformed version of SQUIRE and applying it network-wide.

  Otherwise the danger is that much of the network will still fail to reliably provide the most basic of facilities.

  The Select Committee has already recognised the value of SQUIRE. In its third report (1997-98) on "The Proposed Strategic Rail Authority and Railway Regulation" it found that (paragraph 139): "We were impressed by the Service Quality Incentive Regimes operated by Passenger Transport Executives and recommend similar schemes to be developed for other franchises where operators have monopoly powers; London commuter lines would be prime candidates for benefiting from such regimes."

  The relative success of the PTEs' SQUIRE approach compared with the relative failure of OPRAF's "light touch" regulatory approach shows the scope for greater "contractualisation" of sSRA's objectives for the railway.

CONCLUSION

  Franchise replacement is a major opportunity for a step change in service quality and for establishing a new era of growth for Britain's railways. However, for the potential of franchise replacement to be realised it is crucial that the basis of that replacement—the terms of the contracts—are ambitious, sound and represent the aspirations of rail users.

  We would like the Committee to recommend that:

    —  the refranchising process should be used to increase service levels and to improve connections;

    —  the Authority should conduct a fundamental review of fares policies and should use the refranchising process to simplify fares structure, protect walk-on discount fares and reduce one-way fares and to develop new national fares offers;

    —  measures to promote integrated transport should be seen as an integral part of new franchises. These include measures to improve personal security, access to stations, step-free access to trains and stations and passenger information;

    —  new franchises should include stronger contractual requirements for service quality standards;

    —  new franchises should include infrastructure and rolling stock to cope with future capacity and growth and reduce overcrowding;

    —  the Authority should set clear criteria for awarding franchises and that these should be subject of open consultation.

June 2000


 
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