Memorandum by Ray Bentley (PRF 21)
PASSENGER RAIL FRANCHISING
A Vision for our Railways
The enquiry has 5 bullet points in its Press
Notice 03/2001-02. This memorandum does not address number 5 and
only tangentially 1 & 2. It is key to number 4 in that the
leadership of the industry by the SRA and how it manages the franchising
process requires a clear Vision of where the industry is going.
The governments 50 per cent passenger growth target was not a
vision and indeed on some projections of recent rates of organic
growth was below trend growth. This paper argues for the need
for that vision to be prepared during the time temporary extensions
are in force. This applies equally to the third bullet point in
that vision is needed for an infrastructure enhancement framework.
The paper argues that the Strategic Agenda lacks that vision and
the strategy that emerges from it cannot be the necessary vision.
This paper does not produce the complete vision but suggests some
issues that it should cover and points out that other countries
with successful railways have developed against such visions.
The 20-year franchise replacement process was
to bring forth the private investment needed for our railways.
The TOCs, with few assets, are not attractive investments in themselves
but with 20 years of income flow from government (currently missing)
and 20 years from farebox flow, could sign contracts for new rolling
stock and agree to use and pay access charges on enhanced infrastructure.
That is now largely on hold. We are seeking early benefits for
passengers via two-year franchise extensions, given track capacity
few of these are likely to be extra services. I do not comment
on the relative merits of the two approaches to franchise replacement.
There could be at least two reasons for the
By the next election the government will be
held responsible for the state of the railways, no longer able
to blame privatisation. They introduced the SRA as a solution,
if it has not delivered our blame culture will point at the government.
Perhaps the second reason is to pause to consider
the industry structure. Re-nationalisation in whole or part is
not going to happen, but Railtrack as a PLC has not worked. Railtrack
maximised profit and dividend by cutting cost by compromising
safety and reliability. There is need for stronger economic regulation
and for safety regulation to be more pro-active on regular inspection
(independent of Railtrack) not just re-active after accidents.
However, the point of this paper is not to discuss
any possible tweaks to the structure but to say that we need a
Vision of our future railway before thinking of structure or resuming
the re-franchising process.
The West Coast Main Line upgrade is an example
of a project without a coherent vision. It is trying to mix high-speed
long distance, slower inter-urban, local commuter and freight
(plus maintenance needs) but finding that being driven by a high-speed
vision inappropriate to mixed intensive track use has compromised
the other functions. There may be a solution in there but it will
not be robust and will see continued conflict between the various
The Virgin Trains plan for a new high speed
line for ECML would overcome some of these problems but perhaps
the two year GNER extension is a chance to think through the wider
I use the examples of France and Switzerland.
They are different visions but they both seem to promote national
pride in, support for and relatively high use of their railways.
The non-TGV railway is not a particularly good
model. It could be argued that they have suffered to fund TGV,
any transfer of the vision should bear this in mind. However the
developing TGV system is world class and based on vision. It is
right for a large country with space and topography to allow relatively
straight and flat alignments. The 0831 from Marseilles to Paris
three hours non-stop (466 miles) on a Sunday (with another service
an hour behind) warrants two 8-car double deck units. This vision
has attracted high use. The track is TGV only and available every
night for seven hours maintenance, no overnight freight or daytime
The French choose to link their four largest
conurbations (Paris, Lille, Lyon and Marseilles) by TGV. The TGV
Paris bypass is allowing direct services between these places
without cross Paris interchange. Cross boundary services are also
developing. The system is evolving. TGV through trains use the
high speed dedicated lines and then existing infrastructure for
short distances into cities or (temporarily) for longer distances
to many locations, until the high-speed dedicated lines are extended.
If this vision transferred to UK it would need to ensure that
secondary Cities had direct services and intermodality was enhanced.
Some criticism arises of the priority given to TGV on shared track,
reinforcing the need to complete the vision.
The system is working to a vision of a dedicated
high-speed core network. With some of the tweaks mentioned above
it could form an element of the vision we badly need.
Here the vision was not to major on new high-speed
lines (but with exceptions such as Bern/Olten). A smaller country
of narrow crowded valleys and the need for expensive tunnels supports
such a decision. However, there is an appropriate if different
A regular repeating connection matrix links
most places. The timetable is the same 365 days a year; services
are clockface and frequencies constant throughout the day. There
are hourly daytime freight paths. Infrastructure investment is
focused on trimming minutes between connection nodes to enhance
the number of connections available in the connection matrix.
End to end journey time reduction is not the prime goal. Bi-directional
signalling is extensive to accommodate tidal flows in and out
of stations to deliver multiple connections.
The French TGV timetable largely adopts a standard
Here it is integration (including with bus,
tram and boat) and a constant clockface timetable that is world
class and the guiding vision.
This short paper cannot layout a complete UK
vision, but asks some questions that point the way. It points
out the need for one by suggesting that French and Swiss success
has depended on a long-term vision and saying that WCML is what
happens without an appropriate vision. Perhaps the lurch from
long term franchising to short term is caused by lack of vision
and is just the latest meander through nationalisation, partially
implemented Beeching and privatisation. Can we afford to continue
in an industry with long term investment horizons with short-term
mentality that is the product of no vision?
The vision for UK may be some mixture of the
French and Swiss models. We will soon have a dedicated high-speed
line from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel and thence Europe.
Perhaps we need such a line to the north and west. What are the
conurbations we wish to link in this way? What is the break distance
between internal flights and high-speed rail? The French say 3.5
hours of 150 mph+rail travel. That would encompass most of the
UK population on lines from London but we do not have the space
available to the French.
Should we have a new dedicated high-speed alignment
to the north to feed into existing infrastructure for Manchester
and Leeds? Is Birmingham too close to London to benefit from use
of such a route? Would the removal of longer distance trains to
a new route allow an acceptable fast London/Birmingham service
to co-exist with locals and freight on existing track? Would the
high-speed route to Glasgow be via an upgraded and dedicated high-speed
Settle/Carlisle route? Would an upgraded York/Edinburgh alignment
be adequate? Should a new spinal dedicated high-speed alignment
proceed further north? Would the Virgin ECML proposal be the vision?
Should new lines parallel the M1/M6 with branches to major conurbation's
(eg a branch along the M62).
Should an exclusive high-speed route to the
west be achieved by quadrupling throughout between Reading and
Bristol Parkway to create a dedicated high-speed pair of tracks
with through trains proceeding to Cardiff and Bristol/Plymouth
on upgraded alignments or with tilting trains? Could the Berks
& Hants route then handle more freight and better services
calling at stops between Newbury and Taunton? Should there be
a Bristol/Birmingham dedicated high-speed link?
Should the Southwest have a new line possibly
a tunnel under London to Heathrow then follow M3/A303 to Andover
and along the MSWJ to Burbage/Savernake. There could then be branches,
one to use the B&H and the other to Swindon to proceed to
a separate pair of tracks to Bristol Parkway.
Should these north and west lines use a London
bypass (even if not high speed) to join the channel tunnel link?
With electric traction from the north and on the channel tunnel
link, does the link to the west need this? What is our vision
on traction? Will travel to mainland Europe always be by air apart
from the Southeast? Will the West be the poor relation?
Freight has an 80 per cent target increase but
no vision of how it is to be delivered with expanding slow and
fast passenger services. What about the Great Central proposals?
How can the volume of coal from Avonmouth to Didcot co-exist with
other traffic? How will 24 daily trains of Containers get through
Southcote Junction travelling from Southampton to the West Midlands?
The non high-speed railway could better adopt
the Swiss model of regular clockface connecting services, including
connections for high-speed services. Some Regional Transport Strategies
seek better local service as a means of delivering the spatial
strategy in their Regional Planning Guidance. We may need to create
space for this on the network, unless RPG/RTS agreed by DTLR is
to be frustrated by the railway. The SRA's Strategic Agenda did
not interpret strategy in the terms I have used above. The hiatus
in the refranchising process has not said it is seeking a strategy
or long term vision. Some of the RTS documents (within their regions)
move to a vision of a Swiss style regional timetable. The absence
of a compatible national vision for rail could find RPG/RTS approved
by DTLR vetoed by the SRA that is not working to any particular
There is an urgent need to use the current hiatus
to commission blue-sky thinking on our railway vision and strategy.
We need technical, economic and environmental study of the role
of rail and political debate to agree to a long-term vision. The
steady progress in Switzerland was based on a referendum 20 years
ago, that insulates the investment programme from short-term politics.
Should we put the vision to the people? The government needs good
railway news for the next election. The hoped for short-term benefits
may be thin on the ground given the near capacity use of much
of the infrastructure and the long-term nature of investment.
The production of a bold visionary plan with honesty about its
delivery timescale maybe that good news. Ownership of it by the
people could be even more powerful.
The requirement for the SRA to deliver a Strategy
quickly that will only be a tweak on the inadequate Strategic
Agenda should not be mistaken for the missing vision. The government
could do well to put that on hold with the refranchising process,
but only if work on the "Vision" starts.