Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the London Transport Users Committee (PRF 34)



  1.  The London Transport Users Committee (LTUC) is the statutory watchdog established under the Greater London Authority (GLA) Act 1999, representing the interests of users of transport provided, procured or licensed by Transport for London, the Underground, the national railways in and around London, Heathrow Express and Eurostar.

  2.  In respect of the national railways LTUC acts as the Rail Passengers Committee for London and is part of the Rail Passengers Council/Committee (RPC) network. For most purposes LTUC's geographical area is the same as the GLA's. However for the national railways its boundary extends to include most of Hertfordshire and Surrey, large parts of Kent, Essex, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and parts of Berkshire, Oxfordshire and West Sussex. These include towns such as Epsom, Dartford, Bishops Stortford, Stevenage, Bedford, Slough and Bicester. All London's main airports ie Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and London City are included within this area. LTUC's interest on behalf of national railways passengers also extends, in co-operation as appropriate with the regional Rail Passenger Committees, to ensuring that the London area has satisfactory links with all parts of Great Britain.


  3.  The problems listed or implied in the terms of reference for this enquiry affect rail passenger services throughout the country. However their impact in London and on the commuter routes to London is particularly severe. The sheer size of population of London and its environs, together with its substantial dependence on the rail network as the only practical means of travelling to work, means that very many people are adversely affected by rail's shortcomings. The duration of the rush hour is long, so to meet demand services are operated at high intensity for extended periods. This affects performance because there is little headroom for recovery from incidents. Significant delays—some of which are inevitable given that the system is operated and used by human beings and affected by events outwith railway control—can quickly mushroom to destroy an entire peak service.

  4.  It also means that overcrowding is extensive, both geographically and through time, so the option of easing conditions by changing route or time of travel is open to few. The historic call was for people to stagger their hours. This is exactly what people have done, but this has served only to allow more people to travel, not to make the journey more tolerable.

  5.  Because of the huge pressure of demand, London suffered less than other parts of the country when British Rail—in response to the Transport Act 1968—reduced infrastructure capacity by simplifying track layouts and signalling systems. Paradoxically this means that major solutions to London's problems are much more difficult and expensive. If a four track line was reduced to two and the land is still available, then widening to four tracks again is relatively easy. However if a four track line was always four track and is hemmed in by urban infrastructure, then expansion to six tracks, or even just five, is an altogether different proposition. There are major issues of cost, environment and planning time, to which Thameslink 2000 stands as eloquent witness.

  6.  Again because of the demand, London routes are operated by much longer trains than elsewhere. Outside London few commuter services are longer than six cars and many are much shorter. As their tracks can often accommodate trains of eight cars or more, overcrowding can be addressed relatively easily by ordering extra rolling stock and lengthening the trains. In London, however, most commuter routes operate trains of eight to 12 cars. Lengthening these would require track and station alterations on a major scale, with the same problems as described in paragraph 5.

  7.  This portrayal of the severity of the London problem does not mean that there is no scope for short or medium term improvements. LTUC believes that the present mind-set of the industry regarding, for example, timetabling, localised capacity improvements and what should be achievable in day to day operating performance, is very conservative. With a more "can-do" approach we believe that many services can be improved. However these will only be changes at the margin. Whilst they can and must be pursued, it would be a disservice to London's rail users to suggest that there can be any dramatic improvements in peak travelling conditions in the near future.


  8.  We have deliberately gone into some detail on the London perspective, because we believe it is important to understand that the Government's new approach—indeed any new approach—cannot change the world overnight, or even over the lifetime of a parliament. Our response to the questions posed by the Committee must be understood in this context.

Will the new approach ensure that rapid improvements in the safety, punctuality, reliability, comfort and frequency of services are achieved?

  9.  The broad answer must be no. Partly, for the reasons already discussed, this is because of the stark reality of present demand and the railway we have inherited.

  10.  More importantly, however, it is because the Government seems to have seriously misunderstood the situation. Judging by its public statements, the Government seems to think that the Midland Mainline (MML) franchise extension agreement shows what a two year extension can achieve. However MML is a franchise which was extended in 2000 to expire in 2008 instead of 2006. It is a franchise which would have made premium payments to the SRA towards the end of its original term, and part of the agreement was to convert these payments into new investment. Finally, it is an inter-city franchise in which service quality improvements can generate additional passenger journeys at relatively high fares per head and thus provide worthwhile investment opportunities for the operator.

  11.  For most other operators, and certainly in London, the picture is very different. Many of these franchises expire in 2004. No extension deals—however quickly negotiated—are likely to be achieved before 2002, so the maximum remaining life span would be only four years. Given that most railway investments take at least two years from planning to fruition, this gives no prospect of operators achieving a return. Also, few of these franchises feature premium payments which could be converted into investment. Finally, the improvements being sought by the Government, such as reduced overcrowding, extra drivers, spare trains for emergency use and enhanced maintenance cover (all highly desirable) are ones which impose extra costs on the operators but will do little to generate extra revenue. We are therefore concerned that no-one—least of all policy makers—should be under the illusion that franchise extension is likely to be a mechanism for achieving any substantial easement of the difficult (in some cases almost intolerable) travelling conditions experienced by many London rail users.

  12.  In discussions with SRA staff we have been told that the mismatch between a short term extension and major investment (eg in new rolling stock) might be bridged by the SRA underwriting residual values beyond the life of the extended franchise. They also told us that there is a possibility that four year extensions may be permissible. However this is all "ifs and buts". It is entirely typical of the SRA that they floated the four year extension question some two months ago and said that their legal people were looking at it; we asked to be kept informed (on what is a pretty important issue) but have since heard nothing.

  13.  Despite our grave doubts that the new approach can achieve both rapid and substantial improvements, at the margin (and more generally for off-peak services which are very important for London if traffic congestion throughout the area is to be seriously addressed,) there is some scope for improvement. The new approach can assist, because it calls upon the SRA to pay more attention than hitherto to making operators focus on the day to day delivery of their services, and to developing services to meet ridership and environmental targets. Whether or not this is actually achieved depends on how the SRA actually performs.

  14.  Some of the outputs listed in this question are worth specific consideration. The first of these relates to punctuality and frequency of services. Faced with demands for improved punctuality, the general industry response is to suggest that there is a direct trade-off with more frequent services and that we can't have both. There is a contrary view, namely that a service level which is not a challenge leads to complacency—if a train is late it doesn't really matter because there is little knock-on effect on other trains. Put another way, the greater challenge of a high frequency service is a stimulus to managers and staff to pay closer attention to minute by minute operational detail—because failure to do so will result in the service collapsing. LTUC inclines to the view that up to a certain ceiling the "more trains is a challenge" concept is the right one, and that on many London routes the ceiling has not yet been reached—certainly in the off-peak and evenings and on some lines not even in the peaks. Even where the ceiling is reached, there may well be cases where quite small track or signalling adjustments could raise it by easing a pinch point.

  15.  It is also worth a reminder, because the industry (including the SRA and DTLR) tends to be rather coy about it, that the official definition of punctuality is that a train is only recorded as late if it arrives at its destination five minutes after its publicly advertised time. This means that a train can be as late as you like during its journey, but so long as it arrives no more than four minutes 59 seconds late at destination, then it's on time. Add to this that at least some operators inflate the running times prior to the terminus and that some advertise their public arrival times to be two minutes later than those shown in the working timetables, also that for inter-city operators the official threshold is 10 minutes rather than five, and the much vaunted new target for 93.75 per cent (15 out of 16) of trains to be on time does not look very impressive.

  16.  Paragraphs 14 and 15 above were written on the assumption that the issue of punctuality and frequency of service relates to the question of whether existing services can and should be increased. However just as this memorandum is being finalised we have received strong signals from the SRA and from some operators that in order to progress towards the new punctuality targets the industry believes that it will be necessary to reduce some existing services. By inference this would reduce passenger convenience and increase crowding. This is plainly a very different matter from debating whether or not services should be increased. LTUC members have not yet had the chance to consider this question, but it is vital that the industry clearly explains the issue to the public and promotes public debate before any service reductions are made.

  17.  On safety it is important to understand that, despite the recent very regrettable high profile accidents, rail travel is very safe and has been getting steadily safer. Maintaining and improving that record is to substantial degree a matter of grinding attention to detail by all players in the industry but it is not something for which the SRA has statutory responsibility. However the SRA obviously needs to take account of safety issues and paragraph 2.3 of the draft Directions and Guidance adequately covers this point.

  18.  Insofar as safety can be improved cost-effectively by investing in new systems, the introduction of TPWS is now under way and should not be affected by the Government's new approach. However there is an important question regarding the introduction of ATP. If Government adopts the Uff/Cullen recommendation that this should be installed on all high speed lines sooner than would be achieved by waiting for re-signalling as per normal planning criteria for renewals, then this may impose heavy additional costs on the industry for little commercial return. Unless Government funding were increased commensurately this would greatly reduce the ability of the SRA to fund improvements in the many other aspects of rail services which an informed public would probably regard as more important.

  19.  In addition to the general safety issue, there is a specific trade off between safety and comfort which particularly affects the London area and which may be worth investigating in relation to short to medium term relief of overcrowding. This is fully detailed in Annex A.

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 whether the sums allocated to rail investment remain adequate in the light of events since the publication of the Government's 10-year plan for transport?

  20.  The new approach can secure short-term investment only if the SRA either:

    (a)  negotiates franchise extensions very quickly, or;

    (b)  specifies and funds projects directly with Railtrack and negotiates with operators on a specific case by case basis for the improved infrastructure to be utilised for the intended purposes.

  Option (a) runs the risk of doing extension deals which are too favourable to the operators—haste and value for money do not sit comfortably together. Option (b) is not actually dependent on the new approach; it has always been open to the SRA to act in this way.

  21.  The new approach should be capable of securing the necessary long-term investment, provided the SRA seizes the opportunity in its strategic plan to spell out a co-ordinated national network plan aimed at achieving a coherent and agreed set of outputs (based on proper consultation), and then specifies new franchises so as to secure delivery of those outputs.

  22.  Whether the sums allocated in the Government's 10-year plan are now sufficient is quite another matter. We do not see how the figures can now possibly add up. The plain fact is that as a result of Hatfield public funds intended for new investment are now being diverted into maintenance of the existing assets. At the same time the reduced financial standing of Railtrack means that their ability to contribute to the funding of future developments (which was a major plank of the 10-year plan) has evaporated; already the SRA has had to commit public funds to keep important project development work (such as the East Coast upgrade) on course. Thus the Government's £29 billion is being used for purposes which formed no part of the plan, and the capability of the private sector to raise its expected £34 billion is reduced. If, as referred to in paragraph 18 above, additional safety expenditure is necessary, then the picture is made even worse.

  23.  It is a great fear of this Committee that the Government and the industry might try to bridge the gap, at least in part, by reverting to the policy of financing investment by imposing real fares increases (either directly and/or by tightening the restrictions on the use of cheaper tickets) before improved services are actually delivered. This policy, popularly (or rather unpopularly) known as "jam tomorrow", was often used under British Rail as a means of financing investment and is still used today by at least one train operator. It was and is widely resented and LTUC regards it as totally unacceptable.

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?

  24.  There is no reason why it cannot provide the necessary framework. Paragraph 21 above covers the point.

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?

  25.  The manner in which this question is phrased implies that the SRA has so far been a major disappointment in all these areas. We would not dissent from this view, although in our response to the Government's consultation on the new approach we did acknowledge that things might be looking up. We wrote that "It has to be said that on performance to date, although there are emerging signs of improvement, we are not yet confident that the SRA is adequately resourced in terms of number, quality, balance of professional expertise or commitment to achieve its task."

  26.  The new approach certainly provides the framework for the SRA to be suitably transformed. Whether this happens depends entirely on the quality and commitment of the new chairman and the support given by Government to change the culture of the organisation and to take tough decisions about future staffing.

Will the new approach improve the poor state of industrial relations in the railways?

  27.  In fairness to the industry we would question whether industrial relations can really be said to be poor. True there have been problems, not least in the London area where since privatisation two operators have suffered overtime bans by drivers and one currently has a dispute with guards.

  28.  However compared with BR days, when there was generally a major national dispute—including strikes—every two years or so, the industrial relations scene has been very quiet. It is a matter for speculation as to why—perhaps the private operators look at the immediate cash flow impact of a strike whereas BR tended to be more concerned with avoiding the long-term cost impact of conceding too much. What is notable is that the present guards dispute relates only to one operator, as all others involved settled before the strike dates.

  29.  We would also question whether there is anything that the SRA can do directly. Industrial relations are a matter for employers, staff and unions, not for what is in effect a service procurement agency.

  30.  None of this is to diminish the importance to passengers of reliable service. Any instances in which industrial relations issues spill over into service disruption are to be deplored. LTUC and its predecessors have long advocated that disputes in the industry should be settled by arbitration and not by industrial action, but this call has fallen on deaf ears. If the SRA, perhaps assisted by ACAS, could open a debate as to why arbitration has not been used by the railway industry for many years, this could well be a useful means of seeing if there is a way forward.

September 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 8 March 2002