Rail 698: Will Bristol be forgotten in new franchise?

Railways find it hard to change. The ideal for operators and engineers alike is a railway that has a constant steady flow of trains and passengers, with predictable patterns across the weeks and the months which are relatively easy to cater for.  Good railway operators are those who are able to perform the same tasks day in day out with the same result.

Change is difficult for good reason. The railways are a capital intensive business, where rises in demand can result suddenly in the need for massive levels of new investment, whether it is simply an extra carriage or two, as is happening on the West Coast Line, new signalling to increase train paths, as for example currently in the Reading area, or even a whole new line as with HS2.

It is the lumpy nature of this investment which makes railway economics so different from that of other industries. If sales of say, Coca Cola are booming, it is a simple matter to increase production either by squeezing existing assets – say add a night shift a couple of days a week – or ultimately build a new bottling plant. That may require considerable investment but the extra sales will ensure that an adequate return is obtained – otherwise the scheme will not go ahead.

That simple relationship does not work on the railways and that is at the root of all their problems. I was struck by this when I spoke at a meeting in Bristol organised by local people to press for improvements to be included in the Greater Western franchise, currently being competed for by four of the usual suspects.  There is a desperate need for the expansion of local services in Bristol but how this can be achieved and paid for under the present system is a task that even Hercules might baulk at.

It was, admittedly, bad enough in the days of British Rail to get stations reopened or new services implemented, but at least decision making process was confined to one organisation which had the power to take decisions without direct government interference. It is so different today.  Getting Network Rail, the local authorities , the train operators and the Department for Transport all marching in the same direction is no easy task. And whatever talk there may be of the private sector putting in some cash – perhaps for reopening stations – there is no getting away from the fact that money for both the required capital investment and operating costs will have to come from taxpayers’ pockets. And unlike the days of BR where many quite major capital expenditure decisions could be made by the board without reference to ministers, now every pound is closely scrutinised by what has become a Ministry of Railways.

Bristol, like many regional cities, once had a flourishing suburban rail network. These services were killed off after the Second World War, as car ownership spread and local authorities responded by accommodating motor vehicles at the expense of railways, trams and buses. Bristol, at least, for the most part retained its tracks and a few services such as the Severn Beach line and connections between Bristol Parkway and Temple Meads.

Now, of course, the climate has changed an railways are seen as a way of boosting local economies rather than being a drain on them. The area’s local authorities – for once working in concert when traditionally they have not reached agreement over issues such as light rail – have put together a scheme for a ‘Greater Bristol Metro’ (details at http://greaterbristolrail.com/ which would provide a new half hour service on the Portishead line, currently used for freight, and improvements to the Severn Beach Line. In a second phase, they want to see services on the Henbury Loop and the reopening of various new stations including Ashton Gate which would serve Bristol City’s ground.

However, even the first part of the scheme would require four tracking  – back to capacity before BR, still in cutback mode in the 1980s, tore up two tracks – of Filton Bank, a major bottleneck between Bristol’s two mainline stations.  Therefore, to make any of this expansion possible, Network Rail must include this in its work programme, the franchises bidders must be prepared to offer services and the government must provide the cash through its ‘Statement of Funds Available’, which it will publish at the same time as the HLOS.

This type of local investment might be made easier if government proposals for the decentralisation of rail funding ever see the light of day. They were set out in a consultation paper that was rather buried as it was issued at the same time as the Command Paper on the future governance of the railways in March. It is, in truth, pretty lukewarm stuff and given that any major changes to the system will be made after this round of franchise lettings, it is difficult to see this move having much impact on cases such as Bristol.

God knows, Bristol could do with better public transport. It is one of Britain’s most congested cities, with the slowest moving urban traffic in the country, and its bus network has long been a source of complaint by local residents which, of course, exacerbates delays on the roads. It is a typical example of the failed transport policies of the postwar period when the car was king and nothing was to get in its way. Moreover, it looks so much better on the other side of the water. One of the campaign pamphlets points to Toulouse, a similar size city which also has a strong tradition in the aviation sector, where there is a genuinely integrated transport system with a metro system, a tram and a comprehensive bus network – all obtainable for a 1.50 Euro ticket.

That is the dream. The trouble is that while these issues are of great importance to Bristolians and, indeed, to the economy of the area, they are unlikely to feature prominently in the franchise bids. There is so much else for the bidders to worry about – electrification, the impact of Crossrail, the introduction of the ridiculous new InterCity trains and so on. Bristol, I’m afraid, is hardly likely to figure.

Somehow, though, the campaigners must make sure it does. The meeting was well attended and three MPs were there.  This is a key in the campaign. In a sense, Bristol is a testing ground for the new round of franchises which are supposed to include investment plans. The coincidence of timing of the new long franchise, together with the imminent publication of the government’s High Level Output Statement, which will set out planned investment for the five years from April 2014, offers both a perfect opportunity but also an awful risk that if Bristol does not gets its new services now, it will be half a generation before there is another chance.


Come on, ATOC, cut a bit of slack


The train operators have a fantastic opportunity to kill off the constant drip of bad publicity they attract over harassing people without the right ticket who are clearly not inveterate fare dodgers. The recent report by Passenger Focus highlighted truly dreadful treatment of passengers who had forgotten their railcard or had lost a ticket but could show clearly that they had paid for it. There was an element of real vindictiveness about the treatment of these ‘customers’ which no other company exhibits – with perhaps the exception of Ryanair, hardly a comparison which many operators would like to be made.  Both Nigel Harris and myself have personally witnessed bemused passengers, who are clearly honest citizens, being charged exorbitant amounts of money. Threatening a young woman who has paid £10 for a ticket with a railcard that would otherwise have cost £14 with a bill for £260 because she forgot the card is just ludicrous – why not just impose a £4 fine penalty, or give her the opportunity to show the card at a later date.

Yes, yes, it would impose a slight burden on the operators but they are acting with the authority that was vested in British Rail as a national concern when, in fact, they are private companies seeking to maximise their profits. The regulatory structure needs to be amended accordingly, but one can imagine their squeals if that were proposed.

Not surprisingly, the Association of Train Operators was pretty reluctant to go on air to justify these actions and confined itself to a vague statement about revising its national guidelines. But the problem goes deeper as it stems from very complexity of the ticketing system, and, in particular, the ridiculous disparity between an advance ticket and one purchased on the day. What is needed  is a degree of flexibility on the part of the operators, both in terms of the tickets they sell – why can’t advanced tickets, which are usually on trains that are half empty, not useable in a time window rather than on a particular train, for example? – and in terms of those individual mishaps such as when a passenger forgets their railcard or has lost a ticket for which they can show proof of purchase. Yes,  few fraudsters would maybe get away with it, but its all a small price to pay for the undoubted goodwill and good publicity that would result.

In practice, it would hardly cost anything, perhaps a few hundred thousand out of the £6bn or so annual fares revenue. So ATOC, why not say something like: ‘We are very concerned about these cases and will ensure that in the future we will make every effort not to impose disproportionate penalties on customers who have made a genuine error’ – there, that wouldn’t be too difficult, would it?

  • RapidAssistant

    Re the second section of the piece – agree about relaxing of some of the petty rules which cause so much bad publicity, yet probably bring in only a marginal amount of extra revenue and are probably more hassle than they are worth.  Whilst we are at it – lets get rid of the largely unpoliced “penultimate stop” rules on long distance routes that started to appear after privatisation, and the threat of penalty fares for their violation.

    After all, who is going to wait an extra half an hour on a local service when stuck on a freezing cold platform when the long distance (and sometimes, half empty) express train is going in the same direction??  People going into Glasgow at night from Motherwell routinely get on the Virgin express coming up from Euston for what is essentially a 15 minute hop, and the guards up in this neck of the woods mostly turn a blind eye, but I am sure it is not the case elsewhere in the country.  Sensibility please!

  • M R Godwin1

    On the east side of Bristol there have been plans for reopening Corsham and Saltford stations. Corsham was to be opened as part of the direct Bristol – Oxford service which was one of the few benefits of privatisation in this area, but was abandoned when that service was given up after a few years. The campaign to reopen Saltford is still active but as far as I know FGW have shown little enthusiasm for it.
    – Mike Godwin, Bath

  • Geoff Kerr

    One of the problems for Bristol is the location of Temple Meads some distance from the central business and shopping district. Tram-train might be an option, if the (eventual) trial in Sheffield is successful, with tram tracks running through the old Brunel terminus into the street.

  • Percy

    I know I’ve said this before on here, but the Train Operating Companies are simply light years behind high street giants such as  Tesco when it comes to retailing. We keep hearing how great our big transport groups are from our big transport groups PR machines and ATOC and yet some of the worst of the old BR attitude towards Passengers (Customers) lingers on in their transport empires unchecked.  To me its the big failure of the so called private groups that this attitude still lingers on today on our railway system, its easy to say passengers don’t understand the operating side of the operation that makes it so, I know that I used to side with that argument for a long time and as an ex BR employee could see it from the companies perspective but in reality over the last decade my view has changed and its the TOCS that need to change their attitude towards their customers, take on the rules is rules and they’re always trying that one on attitude that is endemic in their empires almost 20 years since the break up of BR and bring in the retailing and commercial flair of the quality high street and the better airline brands that were indirectly but not spcifically promised by some of them, remember the Virgin HST that appeared in the quality broadsheets about 23 years ago, jacuzzi spa carriage, hairdressing salon etc, utter tosh and PR rubbish all now forgotten. Just gives us courtesy, good manners and a willingness to help and not hinder the customer with a cynical guilty until proven innocent attitude.  

  • RapidAssistant

    Here Here Percy – I liked your point on the “we know better” attitude that seems to be still prevalent within the industry, and not just on the part of those demonised “privateers” as Bob Crow likes to call them, but on his own ex-BR veterans as well.  A good few years ago I made a comment on a now closed railway forum on a bad experience I’d had and a Virgin employee came down on me like a load of bricks, and his message (paraphrasing here) was basically “eff off and mind your own business because you know nothing”.  So it’s not just the TOC executives that are at fault – the people on the ground need a bit of bringing into the 21st Century as well.

  • Percy

    Just been away travelling and witnessed the old advance ticket – have you got the seat reservation  – chestnut, the couple had reams of tickets for each part of their journey and it reminded me that back in the 90s when Inter City first telesaled advance tickets you got a large airline style outward and return ticket with all your specified train departures and seat allocations printed upon it, plus a gate pass ( standard sized ticket ) for the underground barriers.   What happened, how did our privately capitalised, commercially focused, innovative and forward thinking transport groups manage to find the reverse gear and go backwards to where we are now whereby if you have three outward and three return train journeys booked on an advance fare you can have 12 little tickets to mix up and possibly loose. Wasn’t the New airline style ticket introduced in the 90s with all the info printed upon it a much better idea, its as if the TOCS want passengers to loose their tickets so they can give them a jolly good excess penalty fare.

  •  @a00cc476ee4029c4e9a3a1d822f00ff5:disqus  “tram tracks running through the old Brunel terminus”

    As stated that might prove a tad awkward. Rail level is considerably higher than street level.

    However, given some land, I’m sure such a change in levels from rail to street running could be built.

  • SteveBristol

    Part of the business district as opposed the shopping areas has “moved” closer to Temple Meads station with the Temple Quay development, the plans for the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and improvements along the Victoria Street corridor.  The bus connections to Cabot Circus, the Centre and elsewhere from Temple Meads are good but are not cheap.  Bristol needs trams but they’ve been talking about that for over 25 years.

  • SteveBristol

    The original tram tracks have been retained in the road between the Brunel terminus and the station approach road. Trams could run from the original route. 

  • Saw some teenagers on a Virgin Train going between Lancaster and Preston recently.  They “thought they could get a return ticket on the train”.  

    “Nope,” said train manager.  “Only full price singles.”

    Then proceeded to sell them a return ticket anyway as a “one off”.

    Just to give a bit of a positive story about such ticketing things.

    [Suspect the teenagers were hoping no one would ask for a ticket, but that’s another story!]

  • Those tracks were part of the goods depot below the main station. Wagons were lowered by a lift.

  • SteveBrissel

    The tram lines are not standard gauge and they are located alongside the station approach.  They were not part of the goods depot.

  • Former Controller

    ATOC is an unaccountable body, yet its members operate public service contracts and all get State funding.  It will not answer questions (or evades them) – I asked how they produced last year’s breakdown of each £ of fare revenue – the ‘answer’ would have disgraced a totalitarian regime.  ATOC is solely about protecting its members revenue and fortifying their excuses for nonco-operation.