Rail 751: Is open access worth the hassle?

While the Department for Transport may be relieved that it has managed to get the Thameslink etc management contract away – it is not, pace my esteemed editor’s enthusiasm, a franchise since there is no risk transfer – the issues around the East Coast franchise are even more complex and troublesome.

A spanner the size of a Pendolino has been thrown in the works by the announcement in February by Alliance Rail, a shell company owned by Deutsche Bahn, that it wants to run an hourly express service to Edinburgh along the East Coast, only stopping at Newcastle, to bring down timings to 3 hours 43 minutes. The plan is to use a set of 12 Pendolinos and start operating in 2016. The scheme, according to Alliance, was announced earlier this year so that it could be taken into account by bidders while the Office of Rail Regulation consider it.

The East Coast, remember, has the only significant open access operators already – Hull Trains (run by FirstGroup) and Grand Central (also part of DB) but this is a whole different scale of operation, requiring a complete reassessment of the timetable for the whole line. In fact, allowing Alliance to run its services would so radically change the operation of the line that it is unthinkable that a new operator would take over the franchise before a decision is made. The core problem is that all this is being done in a kind of ad hoc way without any real assessment of the implications of such an open access operator, or how the application is affecting the services and, crucially, the timetable, on the East Coast.

In a brilliant and thorough analysis of the situation on the ECML, A Strategic Plan for an Integrated Regular-Interval Timetable: draft proposals for the East Coast Main Line, timetable expert Jonathan Tyler, who runs a consultancy called Passenger Transport Networks has set out the issues and problems of the current muddled structure of the railways. It should be required reading for those in the Department, including ministers, charged with letting the East Coast franchise because, as Mr Tyler suggests, there is a very real danger that we will end up with a situation that is ‘sub-optimal’ even for those passengers who take advantage of the open access operator. He highlights the fact that the problem comes from the lack of planning that would be axiomatic in an integrated and united railway: ‘The DfT continues to ignore the impact of sequential letting of franchises whereby the track access process for each agreed timetable limits what can be achieved by the next one and hence stifles any radical overhaul.’ Indeed, he says, the whole process of letting franchises separately prevents the optimum timetable from being established.

The essential point, says Mr Tyler, is that ‘our railway requires a “guiding mind” focussed on designing its timetable’, the much touted fat controller argument. He goes on to say: ‘if public transport exists to provide appropriate levels of accessibility to work, education, family, community events and leisure in a socially equitable manner and on a foundation that is more truly sustainable than a system that is inequitable and over-reliant on the private car, then it follows that the timetable must afford attractive levels of convenience.’ Yet what is happening is that private interests are being allowed to set the rules.

The Department for Transport is unequivocal and is clearly no fan of the open access arrangements. One senior source almost went puce when discussing the prospect of the ‘German Federal Government’ (they meant DB) imposing itself on ‘our railway’. The official line is hardly less strong. In its response to the Alliance bid, the DfT said: ‘Open access operators are effectively being subsidised by passengers on franchised services which are paying full track access charges to support the maintenance and operation of the network’. That’s because open access operators only pay the variable track access charges and not the major part, the fixed charges, that have to be paid by the franchisees. Despite this, Grand Central which started running services in 2007, has never made a profit and, indeed, ran up losses of £40m in its first four years of operations.

However, because of the quasi independent nature of the railways, the government – which contributes £4bn of our money annually to them – cannot actually just say ‘sorry guys, this is going to cost taxpayers’ money both in reduced premiums and infrastructure costs and lead to a timetable that is not the most convenient for passengers, and therefore you can’t do it’.

Mr Tyler points out that the ORR has a duty to facilitate the ability of passengers to make good connections and yet it seems to focus, instead, on promoting competition which is inherently contradictory. This debate in fact begs the question of what the railway is for. It is all very well celebrating the fact that numbers using rail are going up, but all this extra mobility is not necessarily a ‘good thing’ just as ensuring that stag parties can have cheap flights to Riga on Ryanair is hardly cause for celebration. The key driver should be that people are making journeys that are useful to them, to the economy and fit in with the wider environmental aims of the government. As Mr Tyler puts it, ‘we have reached a strange position whereby neither DfT nor the industry seems at all concerned about where the growth in traffic is coming from. Thus a promotion that creates a long-distance shopping trip of limited social value counts the same as, say, a clutch of short inter-urban journeys transferring from cars because a service has become more frequent and regular’.

The key issue is that open access and franchising are inherently incompatible. The ORR under the leadership of Richard Price is rather keener on competition than it was in the days of his predecessors. However, intellectually as well as practically it simply does not work. By even allowing the potential of new open access operators such as Alliance, the franchise is going to become more expensive for the taxpayer in terms of extra subsidy or reduce premium because there will be fears about lost revenue. No matter how clever the technical calculations over the issue, the bidders will never be reassured and consequently they will want to cost in that risk.

As Mr Tyler emphasises, there is a need for a properly thought out optimal timetable – Mr Tyler calls it an integrated timetable – determined not by the whims and narrow concerns of the franchisee and the open access operator, but rather the public interest. The motivation should be: what is the best service that the line can offer and how do we achieve that? And the logic of that approach is to simply reject any notion of open access operators. It is a fallacy to think that the operators, both franchise and open access, will come up with the best solution.

Mr Tyler suggests that perhaps it is impossible to have an integrated timetable in the franchised and commercialised railway. Maybe, he postulates, it is better just to muddle through – though clearly he does not believe that. His key point however is telling. He says that at least the alternative of having an integrated timetable should be considered: ‘I insist that before continuing as we are we should in all conscience research the alternative: evidence-based policy is preferable to ideology’. A naïve hope, perhaps, but undoubtedly true.

Indeed, the East Coast franchise is being let in a hurry for narrow political considerations because it is a relatively successful publicly run operation. Labour has opposed the process but is still undecided about what to do about the franchising process. Given the numerous uncertainties over the franchise with the introduction of new trains and the existence of the Alliance bid, it would be sensible simply to scrap the whole process irrespective of political considerations and allow the state-owned Directly Operated Railways to keep running the franchise while these issues are sorted. However, we do not live in that kind of rational world.


Ladbroke Grove issues will not go away


Several readers have taken issue with my suggestion that the basic cause of the Ladbroke Grove disaster was the fact that after going through a red the Thames train was routed onto the up main line rather than back to the down relief. One ex-signaller suggested that the fact that the overrun was so long was highly unusual as most SPADs (signals passed at danger) are only for a few yards and therefore no one expected that a train would simply continue after going past a red. Another pointed out that there were likely to be more trains on the down relief than I suggested as they could have come off other lines on to the down relief.

There was, too, a suggestion that the problem of ghost aspects was the real cause as it might have suggested that the light was showing a yellow or even double yellow aspect. I remember that precisely a year after the accident, a train was operated to look for such ghosts aspects but did not find one – however, as the reader points out, that was not sufficient to rule it out.

My point, however, remains. Lord Justice Cullen said that he felt unable to make a judgment on whether flank protection should or should not have been provided without a comprehensive assessment of the need for flank protection and the risks that it could give rise to. That Cullen did not undertake this work, when so many extraneous other issues were considered, remains a mystery.