Memorandum by Passengers in the North
East (PRF 22)
PASSENGER RAIL FRANCHISING
This response has been prepared on behalf on
the North East Branch of the Railway Development Society, Coastliners
(Sunderland to Middlesbrough line), the Saltburn Line User Group
and the Tyne Valley Rail User Group, the members of each of these
organisations being people who use and are interested in the railways
locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. The Minister
has set out his objectives and approach, these in principle being
to effect major changes to passenger services in the short term
by negotiating amendments to the existing franchises and where
appropriate, agreeing short extensions to those franchises.
The Transport Committee proposes now to consider
whether the new approach will, in summary:
ensure that rapid improvements in
service and quality are achieved;
secure investment in additional network
capacity and other improvements;
provide the framework for major infrastructure
enhancements, outwith the remit of Railtrack;
transform the SRA's leadership of
the industry and its day-to-day management of franchises;
improve the poor state of industrial
relations in the railways.
To address these considerations, this document
will first sketch briefly the needs of the railways in the North
East and then discuss the potential for the new approach to achieve
success in the areas identified by the Committee.
2. THE NEEDS
The service provided by the railway across the
national network continues to be below the standard which passengers
are entitled to expect and which is achieved elsewhere. The causes
are well documented and vary from track and signalling problems,
through defective and insufficient rolling stock to widespread
staff shortages and management weaknesses. The paragraphs in this
Section set out some of the key characteristics and changes which
are considered essential in the North East, if the railway is
to be developed sufficiently to realise its full potential in
the overall transport plan.
The integrated railway must make coherent provision
for both InterCity and Local services for passengers and for freight,
across the Region regardless of service provider. Expansion of
the network has become essential to provide major diversionary
routes, (eg the Leamside route being reopened for freight, regular
mainline passenger and regular local and diversionary services)
with existing facilities being exploited and enhanced, to provide
a network of services between the major towns and conurbations
of the North East. Local services must be developed to provide
comfortable, reliable, punctual journeys to and from destinations
in the suburban and rural areas, both as journeys in their own
right and as connecting services for longer journeys. A crucial
target is to achieve door-to-door journey times which will contribute
to a reduction in motor car dependence.
Most infrastructure developments would demand
industry-wide consensus and commitment. Clear vision for the future
in the short and long term will have to be developed in a flexible
way which can be constructively revised as the Regional Transport
Strategy for the North East evolves. Strong leadership from the
SRA will be essential, not only to compile and update the vision
and its translation into a plan but also to supervise the delivery
of the plan through the medium of its franchises and other contractual
arrangements. Such leadership will have to be positive, progressive,
dynamic and sustained coherently across the organisations which
from time to time comprise the national railway.
InterCity train quality should equal or better
that of the Eurostar trains now in service between York and London.
Local trains should at least achieve and maintain the standard
of "Sprinter" units. Operating companies should be required
to have a train strengthening or duplicating capability to cope
with failures and occasional, unexpectedly high demand. Maintenance
programmes and facility locations must be further developed to
ensure that, together with the provision of spare trains, train
services are practically never cancelled because trains are not
available. Trains must be clean both inside and out with on-board,
internal cleaning being carried out during longer journeys and
at turn round on shorter journeys. Toilets must be cleaned to
a prescribed schedule and maintained to a high standard.
Franchise contracts with all operators must
require cooperation in timetable provision to give a good network
of services between the towns along common routes (for example,
Berwick, Alnmouth, Morpeth, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington and
Northallerton in the North East, all of which are served by at
least two and some by three operators). Integrated transport must
start not only with this basic framework but must be extended
to a system of reliable connections with local services, regardless
of operator. This development must also recognise the need for
later evening and early morning connecting trains to facilitate
longer out-and-back journeys within the day. A radical re-think
of weekend services, especially Sunday services is long overdue.
On-board personnel must be smart, considerate,
helpful and available. Driver only operation trains may be attractive
commercially but completely fail to meet the need for passenger
care and attention. Spare crews, suitable trained, must be available
at key locations, so that staff shortage is practically never
the cause of a service cancellation.
Stations served by InterCity trains must be
comfortable, clean and pleasant places to be and wait in. Services
provided must be all those necessary for those travelling, those
making advance arrangements and those waiting. Local stations
must be of an equally high standard with facilities appropriate
to the journeys involved. External to the station, the franchise
must require the operator to work with the civic authorities to
ensure pleasant, well maintained and signed approaches. Equally,
considerate thought must be given to the onward travelling needs
of the passenger whether by foot, cycle, car, bus or taxi.
There is a clear need to build on the success
of the National Rail Enquiry Service, extending the provision
into company-independent ticket sales and real time information
on current train performance. Real time information must be available
by telephone but also internet/WAP enquiry. Progress in this direction
is evolving through the commercial process but leadership and
coordination is now necessary.
Whilst some of the operating companies have
made strenuous efforts to consult their current and potential
passengers (Arriva Trains Northern being one such company), the
industry generally has not appeared to do so. Indeed, the formal
franchising process does not appear to consider passengers to
be stakeholders in the industry! The succession of contracts and
subcontracts involved in the current railway means that most of
those involved in delivering the service are insulated from the
only true customer, namely the passenger.
Having created a railway which is operated largely
by contract and subcontract, it is now apparent that the mechanisms
available to ensure that the work is discharged according to the
contractual intent are inadequate. This inadequacy is apparent
in activities from major maintenance to minor cleaning operations
and future franchises must include an enforceable mechanism for
ensuring minimum standards are achieved in all areas of passenger
The need to market the railway has changed in
its nature as a result of recent events. That the population now
wrongly perceives car travel to be safer than rail travel illustrates
the need for sensitive, effective marketing led by the SRA, driven
by ATOC and implemented and interpreted by the operating companies.
This submission has not sought to suggest radical
change to the structure of the railway, such considerations appearing
to be outside the scope of the current investigation. However,
it is important to note that a much more responsive railway would
result from decentralisation of control, with increased local
managerial responsibility and greater empowerment of local staff.
This point would be as true of the SRA and the Regulator as it
is of the operating companies, Railtrack and their subcontractors.
3. THE NEW
Against this background, the aspects identified
by the Committee will now be considered:
Will the new approach ensure that rapid improvements
in the safety, punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency
of services are achieved?
Without being complacent, it is unclear as to
whether improvements in railway operating safety should be a particularly
high priority. Already the safest mode of travel when passenger
statistics are considered, even including recent sad events, it
is clear that the railways should continue to strive to use the
best available technology to prevent accidents. There is, however,
an equally clear and arguably more urgent need to raise the awareness
of the public regarding the true safety standards achieved.
The new approach does indeed offer the potential
to improve service punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency,
but only if linked very clearly to a common, industry-wide vision
led by the SRA and enforced through its contracts and contract
monitoring arrangements. The requirements of the North East outlined
above make clear that the changes needed are extensive, detailed
and complex. To be effective, therefore, the SRA would have to
develop a network of regional offices and route management teams,
perhaps not totally unlike that of the Highways Agency, to work
closely with the service providers.
Many improvements in local services in the North
East would be possible without huge investment. It should therefore
be possible to agree such improvements quickly and effectively
under the new approach. For example, local services serving Gateshead
MetroCentre are adequate for shoppers but not for staff who have
to arrive before the centre opens or leave after it shuts. Equally,
many of the information and facility improvements of this type
should be equally achievable under the new approach. Staffing
issues too, from cleaning to driving, should be amenable to rapid
improvement within the franchise framework as should timetable
coordination and connecting service improvements.
Currently, the timetable within which the SRA
sees its operations to fit is very extended. Even the relatively
simple reopening of an existing line, such as the Leamside Line,
to develop a strategic route is seen within the Strategic Agenda
to require four to seven years for implementation. Equally, the
process times consumed by the abortive ECML and TransPennine franchise
bids would make rapid improvements impossible. Clearly, a prerequisite
of success for the new approach would be a radical review of the
processes and reduction of the timescales within the SRA.
Will the new approach secure investment in additional
network capacity and other improvements to meet both the long
and short-term needs of the railways and will the sums allocated
to rail investment remain adequate in the light of events since
the publication of the government's ten-year plan for transport?
The new approach in isolation is likely to inhibit
investment in the railway, since the timescale over which a return
might be made on the capital invested is too short. However, a
more vigorous use of existing powers together with any strengthening
of those powers which might be needed, would allow a suitable
directed, empowered and motivated SRA to guarantee returns in
the event of later changes in franchise holder. So, for example,
GNER and the SRA could respectively fund and guarantee the return,
on the new rolling stock required for the improved ECML services
The sums allocated to rail investment do not
seem to be a key question at this time. Rather, the key to progress
appears to be in the source of those sums. Whatever the political
view, it appears that Railtrack will be a liability rather than
a source of major investment funds for some time to come. Much
of the declared funding will have to be provided from the public
purse as the 10 year plan already intends for the road network.
Some will be available through agreements with operating companies,
passenger and freight, but for infrastructure works, direct funding
through the SRA, as through the Highways Agency for roads, will
now be essential. Clearly, if such changes of approach are to
be achieved in time for the new approach to deliver rapid improvements,
then a rigorous transformation of the SRA will be essential.
Will the new approach provide the framework for
major infrastructure enhancement projects to be taken forward
now that Railtrack is to focus on the maintenance and renewal
of the existing network?
The franchise holders have not hitherto owned
or had responsibility for the operating infrastructure and the
new approach does not appear intent on changing that arrangement.
Whilst past enhancement programmes have been initiated by Railtrack
alone or jointly with others (ECML, Leeds 1st, WCML), it now appears
that major franchise holders will be more able than Railtrack
to plan and take forward the infrastructure needs of the future.
The new arrangements for upgrading the ECML, coordinated by the
SRA, appear to indicate one way forward but there may be other,
equally effective, ways of achieving partnership arrangements.
Major decisions about the ownership of existing
and new infrastructure appear now to have become essential and
meanwhile, there is continuing uncertainty about the ability of
Railtrack to discharge even its maintenance and renewal responsibilities.
Complementary to the new approach, therefore, it appears vital
and urgent to review the funding of Railtrack and the role of
the SRA in the provision of renewals, incremental improvements
and comprehensive upgrades in a timely manner. That simple pointwork
at Hexham cannot currently be undertaken before 2004, illustrates
well the current malaise. Short term, operating company franchise
charges and extensions appear unlikely to have any relevance in
Will the new approach transform the SRA's leadership
of the industry, its day-to-day management of franchises and the
way in which it assesses and awards new and extended contracts
for passenger services?
The new approach will not achieve such a transformation.
Rather, it will demand such a transformation, if it is to succeed.
The SRA has been a huge disappointment as far as providing leadership
is concerned; the transformation of the SRA will have to be rigorous.
Radical and itself brought about in a very short timescale such
that the transformed SRA is in place at a date sufficiently early
to deliver the new approach. Success will be critically dependent
on the new chairman and the terms of reference (s)he is given.
Areas which will require transformation are indicated above but
in short include:
Visioncapable, outside the
contractual context, of distilling the visions of the component
parts of the railway, into a coherent whole, deliverable within
the contractual context.
Leadershipa positive, dynamic
leader of the industry, capable of securing consensus in those
areas which demand network integration and direct agreement in
those areas affecting individual operating companies, with a clear
ability to distinguish between the two.
Responsivea regional as well
as national leader with strong contract management capability
in both contexts. A knowledgeable and dynamic contributor to the
development of regional and national transport strategies, delivered
in timescales appropriate to the new approach.
Pragmaticcapable of facilitating
integration between competing commercial entities to bring about
the service enhancements required by the passenger.
the future involves much more than the improvement of the present
network; the future demands active support of the many communities
now campaigning for new and reopened stations, lines and services.
Stewardthe key to not only
state investment management but also to the support necessary
to ensure private sector funding is realised for appropriate projects;
if not the owner of the network then demonstrating a clear stewardship
of the railway, responsible, dynamic and involved.
Clearly, this paper is not the place for a treatise
on the SRA and the SRA itself no doubt has many good, imaginative
ideas for the way ahead. The key point that this paper seeks to
make in response to the question posed is that radical change
of the SRA is an essential prerequisite for success by the new
approach. Such change is unlikely to be engendered simply by imposing
the new approach on the SRA.
Will the new approach improve the poor state of
industrial relations in the railways?
Before accepting that industrial relations generally
are poor in the railways, it would appear proper for a comparative
study to be undertaken and published. The proposed changes in
the role of guards do not appear to have been handled well by
the operators but on the other hand, GNER appears to have trained
its crews and customer contact staff well, providing sufficient
people to do the job, and to have enjoyed commensurate industrial
relations. That said, the new approach appears likely to exacerbate
the general situation rather than improve it, since the stability,
which is a fundamental requirement of good industrial relations,
will be reduced. However, if the new approach does deliver an
improved railway which gets closer to realising the aspirations
of its passengers, then industrial relations are very likely to
improve from whatever the current base.
From the evidence presented in this paper, it
is concluded that the new approach is capable of improving the
quality of service available to passengers, the key stakeholders
in the railway, but that a prerequisite of success is a radical
transformation of the SRA into a progressive, dynamic leader of
the industry with vision not only of enhancements of the present
network but also of its expansion to towns and communities not
currently served. To this end, the SRA wil have to delegate responsibilities
regionally and become a steward of both state and private sources
of funding investment in the railway.