Further memorandum by South West Transport
Network (PRF 26A)
PASSENGER RAIL FRANCHISING
1. The demise of Railtrack PLC should be
seen as an opportunity. It ought never to have been privatised
in the first place. "Poll tax on wheels" was an apt
description. It was seen as a property company, its top management
well versed in finance but lacking knowledge of running railways
or maintaining track. It was doomed to failure. Hopefully its
successor will be capable of redemption.
2. The financial structure of its successor,
requiring public money, has to involve the Treasury. In British
Rail days (with stop-go) this had dire results: rushes to spend,
sometimes inappropriately, within a given financial period, while
long-term strategic schemes, committing expenditure over a number
of years, were obstructed. The 10-year programme is an attempt,
with limitations, to overcome this. Yet really big projects, like
Jubilee and West Coast lines, with dubious management, once started
cannot stop, and can have massive overruns! The "special
purpose vehicle" notion is seen as a way round this. But
SRA's CE Mike Grant told me these would not be appropriate for
the kind of upgrades we urgently need in the South West. Asked
"where can the money come from", his answer: "Public/Private
3. The "Wessex" notion, related
to "NuTrak", will not provide this. Rather we need something
like: "Design, Build, Finance and Operate consortia, similar
to those that have successfully delivered light rail projects
and including train operating groups, with contracts to operate,
maintain and upgrade each part of the national rail infrastructure."to
quote from one expert pronouncementwhich makes sense. The
SRA would have an important co-ordinating role, including production
of the national timetable, involving penetrating services. In
this connection I quote from a submission we have made, on 8 October,
to the South West Regional Assembly.
"The Railtrack news broke over the weekend.
Now that company looks like becoming a non-profit trust, which
could in effect become a holding company for infrastructure (some
will say re-nationalised in all but name). Thus the way will be
open for developments on the lines of the Modern Railways `manifesto'.
Speaking on Radio 4 Stephen Byers did not rule out moves to reconnect
wheel and rail, though disclaiming his intention to intervene
as Secretary of State. It was up to the `administration' (as he
called the new Railtrack) and operating companies to come to agreements.
It is an opportunity for the South West, where
the two main linesthe LSW and the GWare well defined
and could become the basis for two `vertically integrated railways'
run by `joint venture' Railway Companies. There would need to
be agreement as to which takes what of the branches and cross-lines,
but much of this is pretty well defined. Since March 2000 we have
been advocating something of the sort, saying `Wessex' never did
make sense"artificial" the `manifesto' calls
it. No early action can be expected from a reconstructed Railtrack
towards the major investments we seek, including duplication between
Salisbury and Exeter.
A bold and sensible move now would be for the
Assembly and the RDA to take the lead in opening negotiations
with the main players to see what co-operation and determination
is on offer towards a `manifesto' type "creation of a functioning
railway". Willingness and ability could be established during
short-term franchise extensions, while holding out firm prospect
of long-term contracts if satisfactory progress is made. Precise
terms of contract could be worked out by negotiation during the
intervening period as practical steps proceed.
An embryo Bristol Business Unit is urgently needed,
and could be part of an `integrated railway'. Laura Wren at SRA
told me by email there have been "a series of meetings with
representatives of local authorities and regional bodies regarding
SRA's Strategic Plan on an invited basis, therefore I cannot agree
to your request to attend" so I am not aware of what has
gone on. Anyway it was all before the Railtrack announcement.
We are now into new territory.
Bristol missed out when PTEs were set up in other
major conurbations. A Business Unit here, related to buses as
well as rail, could perhaps fill that role, as a `public/private
partnership'. (It could absorb such expertise as exists in current
franchises). The Joint Strategic Planning and Transportation Unit
of former Avon Councils could become a sort of PTA, with addition
of representatives from adjoining Counties. Gloucestershire and
Somerset are generally co-operative in such matters, but Wiltshirewhence
there is also much commuting into Bath and Bristolis less
so. All need persuading of the potential benefits.
In evidence to the Assembly's Select Committee
the CBI have illustrated employers' transport problems. Examining
unemployment problems it was `realised that suitably skilled people
were available in the high unemployment areas to the south of
the city. However public transport links between the two sides
of the city are very poor and people would have to catch many
buses and spend hours travelling to get from south to the north
and back again'. There is also the problem of access to Bristol
City from Portishead. (Where the Port Company have paid for relaying
the line, but without allowance for passengers!)
Our notion of a Greater Bristol Metro, the S&X
routes on existing rail, incorporating prospective LTR(on the
Karlsruhe principle) is the potential solution. The important
immediate need is re-quadrupling tracks between Filton (a crunch
point in the national network) and Lawrence Hill, possibly with
duplication of the Avonmouth line to provide an alternative route
while work proceeds, opening up future prospects. This kind of
thing, and sorting out deficiencies of major interchange stations,
will not happen without a well led, flourishing Business Unit
located in Bristol.
There is much to play for in the developing situation,
in which the Assembly should have a key role on behalf of the
Other urgent necessities in the South West include
a Business Unit for Plymouth/Cornwall and re-duplication between
Salisbury and Exeter. The present franchisee is working on plans
for this, and for a train crew depot at Exeter to provide for
branch lines and better services westward. Apropos "Wessex",
Stagecoach Group's Rail Director says, with good reason: "There
is no logic in separating the line from the present South West
Trains. It further complicates the allocation of scarce train
paths on the main Waterloo corridors, it makes integration with
other services more complicated and has the potential for delaying
much needed improvements to the Salisbury to Exeter line. More
and more we see sense in removing the separation of responsibility
for the wheel and the rail that rail privatisation has created.
At best such a separation is sub-optional, at worst, it is unsafe."
I have put a question, asking the Assembly what
steps are proposed in the new circumstances created by changes
at Railtrack and in the SRA, to be asked at the Assembly's general
meeting on 26 October.
4. Because railways are an essential part
of the national fabric, required to support the economy, help
avoid excessive congestion, promote "social inclusion",
they cannot be allowed to fail. Therefore Government cannot, in
finality, escape risk. But risk can be minimised by carefully
drawn-up contracts, offering mutually beneficial incentives. This
is a matter of competent management.
for Transport 2000 SW and Railfuture Severnside
25 October 2001