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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)



  360. This was Railtrack when they were involved with Leeds, that Wakefield was included in the programme; were you not aware of that?
  (Mr Beale) If I may come in and say that I was not aware of that but I am aware that GNER are offering station improvements at Wakefield as part of their two year franchise extension.

  361. So, that is still on board?
  (Mr Beale) That is still on board.

  362. Are you aware of any commercial interests in the development of Wakefield?
  (Mr Beale) No.

Mrs Ellman

  363. The Strategic Rail Authority have just told us that factors to do with regional economic regeneration are not part of their assessment of value for money. Could you tell us what impact that has had in the north west.
  (Mr O'Friel) I do not think we could actually because that is beyond our remit. I do not think we could say that with any certainty at all. What we could say is that, from the point of view of the Rail Passengers Committee, we take account of what the regional development agencies strategic plan is and indeed we have contributed towards that through our members. So we are fully aware of it. I really would not be able to make an assessment, I do not think we are at the stage of the implications.

  364. Would you see it as part of your role to make representations about the needs of the north west?
  (Mr O'Friel) Entirely. We do that all the time; we talk to the companies all the time about the need for improving services and to the Strategic Rail Authority and to their representatives.

  365. Do they listen? Do they do anything?
  (Mr O'Friel) They listen, that is certainly true, but how much account they take of what we say is another matter. We would, for example, say that the discussions about the Trans-Pennine separate franchise were opposed, I think almost universally across I think the whole of the north, both from the train operators, from users and from local authorities. We went to some trouble to arrange a conference at which these diverse views were put and the Strategic Rail Authority was well represented. We did not feel that the Strategic Rail Authority took the message away. They may have heard what we said but they did not take it away and do anything about it.

  366. Are there any comments from the north east on this issue?
  (Mr Beale) Mainly supportive comments. I have to say that although things are, once again, improving but gradually, we feel we have had a problem with the SRA for a long time in that its view of consultation and our view do not meet in the middle somewhere. Our view is that we should be told what the current thinking is, be presented with perhaps some options, and we could feed in the passenger viewpoint and come to an agreed position. I think the position historically has been that the SRA have decided what they are going to do and then come to try and sell it to us, which is their view of consultation.

  367. Would you like to see any changes in the remit of regulated and unregulated fares?
  (Mr O'Friel) There is a review which is about to take place by the Strategic Rail Authority on the whole matter of fares and we would certainly welcome almost a root and branch look at the whole situation because we of course have been at the heart of emphasising the difficulties created for passengers by the huge fare increases by Virgin, particularly to the north west but to other regions as well, and our attempts to get regulators to take on this problem as we saw it have really run into the sands. We referred it to the strategic rail authority and frankly there was a long, hollow silence. We referred it to the office of the Rail Regulator and the Rail Regulator I think told us in a nice round about way that it was too expensive to do the sort of investigation we required. So, quite frankly, we are not very pleased about the way the regulation of fares actually works in practice for the benefit of passengers.

  368. Have you suggested changes?
  (Mr O'Friel) Yes, indeed. We have suggested to the Strategic Rail Authority that if the current arrangements do not work, they should be seeking additional powers in order that this would make a difference and we would put exactly the same point to this Committee, that it may be that there is not sufficient power in the regulatory authorities to ensure that there is no abuse of monopoly because we believe, quite frankly, that there has been some form of abuse of monopoly, even if in a legal sense the Regulator has cleared Virgin of that.

  369. What is the experience in the north east?
  (Mr Beale) The situation in the north east is that we are keeping a very close watch on just in case GNER in some way try and follow the pattern which was established by Virgin. If I could quote as an example when the new timetable came into effect on the second of this month, there are further restrictions on the use of savers which is the regulated fare and a new fare called a business saver has been introduced and certainly from Newcastle which is the station I use most often, Kings Cross is £2 extra. However, that of course is not a regulated fare; so, at the next opportunity, there would be nothing to stop GNER making the sort of increase on that fare which we have seen on the West Coast on Virgin.

Miss McIntosh

  370. What do you believe should be the main criteria on the awarding of the new franchises?
  (Mr Preston) It has to be that franchise which is going to produce the maximum passenger benefit in terms of quality of service. We are talking about someone who can guarantee to run trains which are in the timetable and run them to time, to turn them out of the depot in the morning in a clean condition and keep them clean throughout the day. These things should be possible. At the moment, at places it seems that is not being delivered. Let us get some basics in here and award the franchises which can deliver that kind of thing before we get all the fancy things on top of that.

  371. If there were a choice between a long-term renewal of the franchise for GNER or a three year renewal with a link-up to the northern services, which do you consider would be best for passengers?
  (Mr Preston) My own view on this is that you must have a situation which will allow a franchisee to invest. Railway investment has to be planned years in advance. Even if you wanted new trains today, you would not see them for three years on the track. I cannot see that short-term franchise and extension of franchise is going to produce any really significant benefits.

  372. Do you envisage the possibility of an integrated service, for interconnecting services using York as a hub?
  (Mr Preston) One of the things that is really missing in the present PSRs is any way of pinning down connecting services and making the various companies co-operate with connections which existed appearing in the timetable and the whole issue was about whether they are actually maintained on the day as a result of late running, but, yes, I think that if you are going to encourage people to use the rail as their mode of choice, you have to look at the door to door journey, so it has to be connecting services.


  373. On the north eastern line, do you think that projects of passenger partnership schemes are better and give better priority compared to nationally run schemes? Do you think it is better to have the sort of scheme that is being suggested through a partnership scheme rather than a nationally driven scheme? Have you not examined that?
  (Mr Beale) The use of the rail passenger partnership funding?

  374. Yes.
  (Mr Preston) It has to be.
  (Mr Moorhouse) Can I say something on that one because I think it certainly has. I think there is very much a future for rail passenger partnerships and I think that we must look at any way we can of getting investment in the railways and, where there would obviously have to be a national strategy, let us hope that we can see more of that. We certainly also have to see some local investment. A lot can be done locally and regionally and I think the rail passenger partnerships are very useful for that.

Dr Pugh

  375. Mr O'Friel has already eloquently exposed that there is a particularly good one in the north west, but can you point to any area of policy where there has been a change simply because of what you have said?
  (Mr O'Friel) I think the best example is probably on the Virgin fares issue where we have got it on the agenda with the Strategic Rail Authority. I can remember when I was first appointed going with John Moorhouse to see the then OPRAF officials and, quite frankly, we were not quite laughed out of court but we were certainly not taken at all seriously when we first raised the question of Virgin fares. Now we have satisfactory references to us in the strategic plan, certainly a huge improvement to what there was.

  376. Getting something on the agenda is not quite the same as changing policy.
  (Mr O'Friel) I think it is because the first step towards changing the policy is that you get it on the agenda and, quite frankly, if it was not on the agenda in the first place, getting things on the agenda can be quite a task.
  (Mr Moorhouse) If I may add to that, I think there is a specific area where we have changed policy and that is the way that Virgin plan some of their fares. For example, we have managed to get a whole lot of railcard fares and people travelling on behalf of charities to be able to travel a great deal cheaper than they could before at certain times of the day; so we do have an impact and that is an example of it.

  377. As a barometer of public opinion, of rail users anyway, are there any issues that people bring to you, not relating to domestic things such as how well the trains run or whether they turn up on time but more sort of strategic things that people mention such as the fragmentation of railways? Do people demand network improvements and extensions?
  (Mr O'Friel) I think we often seen the symptoms, the causes of which are of course fragmentation. People usually come to us and the great classic problem is lack of information about anything and the difficulty of finding out what is going on. That nearly always comes down to fragmentation. Sometimes, we get into quite difficult situations where people are trying to discover the cause of something and we take the case up on their behalf and two different parts of the industry try and blame the other and we are left in the middle trying to satisfy passengers and trying to get answers for them and that has been very frustrating.

  378. So users are expressing an interest, plainly not explicitly, but they want more hubs, they want better links and do they want the re-opening of lines?
  (Mr O'Friel) They certainly want a more joined up railway and they want a railway which is larger and has more capacity so that the present overcrowding and some of the present difficulties are overcome.


  379. Would it be better for the SRA to establish rather less ambitious specifications for new franchises with the possibility that that might go wrong rather than having very ambitious plans that are unlikely to be delivered?
  (Mr O'Friel) I think it is not an either/or. My personal view is that we have to have a bit of both. What is important is that the plans in the shorter term have a rather more realistic edge. I think we have suffered a bit from some of the grand schemes and I think, I hope that the present leadership of the SRA will perhaps focus more on getting improvements that passengers can see rather something that is a distant mirage as far as passengers are concerned.

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