Plan for rail improvement

THE railways are booming, with

record numbers travelling by train.

Amazingly, even through the double

dip recession, there’s only been one

year when the annual passenger

count has fallen.

There are lots of reasons for this

including increases in the number

of train services and the ability

to use electronic equipment on

trains and cheap deals through

advance booking. Consequently,

Britain is enjoying a new age of

the train.

However, while there’s no doubt

that things are getting better for rail

passengers, there’s still room for lots

of improvement.

So here are five possible ways that

the railways could ease passenger

journeys and attract even more

people onto the tracks in 2013.

■■Information. While there is now

very good information provision for

finding out about train times and

basic fares, it is when things go wrong

that information and advice is often

not up to scratch.

Those scenes of thousands of

bemused passengers looking at

screens with the word “Cancelled”

plastered all over them do nothing

for the industry’s public relations.

Moreover, in these days of Twitter and

other social media, passengers are

often better informed than the railway

staff about the cause of delays and

their likely length.

The Office of Rail Regulation, which

is taking a greater interest in trying to

improve passenger experience, has

recently produced a report setting

out numerous ways in which the

operators can improve.

Operators are now supposed

to abide by a code of practice but

standards can still vary considerably.

While some have understood the

advantages of using Twitter to

communicate with their passengers

and to ensure that staff have iPads to

keep themselves up to date, others

still seem to be relying on pigeons and

tom-toms.

■■Fares. This issue too is partly about

information, but goes well beyond

that. It is unlikely that there is any

rail passenger in the country – apart

from my fellow columnist on Rail

magazine, the fares expert Barry Doe

– who understands the fares system

and is able to ensure they always get

the cheapest deal.

The problem is that it has been

designed to serve several needs.

The train operators want to

maximise profits and fill off-peak

seats by selling advance tickets,

while the Government wants to make

sure that season ticket holders and

long distance passengers are not

ripped off.

So the fares system has ended

up being a mix of regulated and

unregulated fares, with deals available

for advance tickets and with season

ticket holders effectively getting

almost 20 per cent off.

Add in railcard holders of various

types, occasional deals that mean

first class is cheaper than standard,

and competition between operators

so that some tickets are only valid on

one company’s trains, and you get a

flavour of the complexity. Navigating

some of the websites requires a degree

in maths and the patience of a saint.

Lots of people end up paying more

than they need to.

The Government has announced a

fares review due out in 2013 but the

promised simplification is unlikely

to materialise – and it certainly had

not before this week’s above-inflation

increases in ticket prices.

It could start with reducing the

crazily high walk-on fares at peak

times and then go on to provide

a simpler system that is easy to

understand and which will help

bring people back on to rail.

Overall, fares are too high and an

end to the formula of increasing them

by one per cent above the rate of

inflation would be welcome in these

hard times.

■■New rolling stock. Many people in

the North are travelling in rickety old

rolling stock built in the 1980s to a bus

design. These draughty Pacers are

unacceptable for modern travellers

and their replacement with newer

trains would provide much needed

new capacity. Most lines in the UK

now have decent rolling stock and

the North has been the exception for

too long.

■■Local control. In several parts of

the UK, such as London, Scotland

and Merseyside, local democraticallyelected

organisations have been given

a measure of control over their local

rail services. The Government has

been consulting on this issue and

Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport

Secretary, has already announced

that Transport for London is going

to be allowed to expand its highly

successful London Overground

network by taking on some

suburban routes from the existing

franchisees. This is a good sign that

control of the Northern franchise

may be given to the passenger

transport authorities in the North,

although the precise arrangements

are likely to be quite complex and no

announcement has yet been made.

However, in all regions where local

people have been given more control

over the railways, they have improved

and usage has risen. The year 2013

could see the biggest change in the

structure of railways in the North

since privatisation nearly 20 years ago.

■■Reducing the cost of the railways.

Following on from that, a key issue

is trying to reduce the high cost of

the railways which feeds through

into fare rises. Costs have soared

since privatisation because of the

need to have rigid contracts and

legal agreements between all the

various players such as the operators,

Network Rail, and the rolling stock

companies which were created out of

British Rail at privatisation.

The key to reducing costs is to

bring these various bodies together

as much as possible. Already there

is an experiment for the services out

of London Waterloo where the train

operator, South West Trains, part of

the Stagecoach group, has melded in

with the local part of Network Rail so

that their activities are co-ordinated.

One benefit, for example, is that there

will be fewer weekend closures and

these will be co-ordinated to ensure

that they minimise disruption to

travellers.

There are, of course, big plans in

the offing with the projected new

HS2 for which the detailed route to

Manchester and Leeds is going to be

published in 2013.

However, this will not be completed

until 2032 at the earliest, and it is vital

that the railways obtain sufficient

investment to keep on improving in

the meantime.

 

  • Hmmm. HS2. I was looking at the route map of that – I see that it uses the parts of the Great Central for some of its way, but when it gets to the towns that the GCR used to serve, it swerves round them! Now OK, probably because the line has been built over anyway – but it really seems to me that it would be far more use to everyone if the line did serve the towns that it used to serve – Far more beneficial to everyone than the small elite who will end up using HS2. Therein lies the rub. We keep being told that we have as many passengers using the lines as in 1929 – So therefore – wouldn’t it be a good idea to re-open a few of the lines that we were using back then to ease congestion? Uckfield to Lewes, Horsham to Guildford, Norwich to King’s Lynn? Re-opening Buxton to Matlock or the Woodhead route would open up extra space for Manchester (Though in an ideal World – reverting G-Mex back to a station would help! So many little things could be done – so we wouldn’t need the big things! The sooner we sort out the ridiculous costs involved the better too!

  • Paul Holt

    Missing from this plan is the obvious point about making/remaking the links broken by Beeching. Done properly, a true network can be created where many more journeys by means other than the private car will be viable.

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