Rail 664: Wrexham debacle highlights weakness of open access

So farewell Wrexham & Shropshire.   It was a lovely idea, but in truth as doomed as Romeo’s efforts with Juliet, a brief love affair between rail nostalgics and the forces of modern capitalism. Not surprisingly, the latter proved to be as unromantic as a geriatric hippopotamus, especially once the Germans had taken on the line and it was bound to end in tears which, on the last day, were genuinely shed.

Wrexham & Shropshire was a great little service, a kind of throwback to the best of British Rail but it never made any money. Passengers loved its retro feel and the personal service of the staff, but there were never enough of them and the hard economics, influenced by the constraints under which open access operators function, did for the service and suggest that there is going to be very little mileage in the concept despite plans to run competitive services on the West Coast once the present Virgin franchise ends in 2012.

Certainly, the very idea of Wrexham & Shropshire seemed ambitious even before the constraints imposed upon it by the competition rules. Wrexham boasts a population of under 45,000 and none of the stops represented substantial communities, apart from Wolverhampton which, because of Virgin’s opposition, could not be used by passengers to and from London. More than £13m was invested to set up the service, but it still lost £2.9m in the final year of operation. To show just what a basket case it was, to raise that amount would have required, assuming say £30 per fare, close to an extra 100,000 passengers per year, or nearly 300 per day on its three trains. Given that shortfall, it is amazing the service lasted as long as it did.

Its demise raises wider issues about the potential of open access. A bit of history is illuminating here. One of the stated reasons for privatisation was to encourage competition and there was much talk during the process of ensuring people would have the choice of different providers on the same route. It was, though, an ill-thought out notion, exemplified by the hapless rail minister, Roger Freeman, at one time suggesting that there could be trains for secretaries and trains for their bosses.

Let’s spell this out clearly. The notion of franchising out swathes of services on a long term basis to a particular operator is incompatible with genuine open access and therefore makes on-rail competition not viable. The reason is simple, but it did not occur to ministers until a couple of years into the rail privatisation process: if rival operators were allowed to enter the market and cherry pick services in a franchise area run by a rival, then the cost of subsidising the franchises would go up enormously, making the whole process unworkable. The open access operator would simply run cheaper services at peak times to lure away the incumbent’s customer base.

So ministers came up with the notion of ‘moderation of competition’ which was partial on some lines, notably the East Coast which was thought to have some spare capacity and total on the West Coast because of the big investment needed to upgrade services and provide new rolling stock.  So a few open access operations have been tried and both Hull Trains and  Grand Central have survived, though have struggled to achieve profitability. (Freight operators are effectively open access players, but are protected in other ways and represent a different issue.) Grand Central is greatly helped by being able to stop at York, and therefore obtain a portion of the revenue on that popular route which is in contrast to Wrexham & Shropshire which could only offer Tame Bridge Parkway near Walsall, hardly a good substitute from being allowed to call at Birmingham. The company has plans, too, to operate a new open access service reconnecting Blackpool with London when the West Coast situation is reviewed at the ending of the Virgin franchise next year and another company wants to run services round the Cumbrian coast through to London.

There are two reasons why ministers have maintained support for open access:  European legislation and that it keeps the franchisees honest, by allowing key routes to be served if the franchisees have no interest in operating them.  The European point is a red herring since open access must only be made possible where there is spare capacity and it would easily be possible for franchises to be specified in such a way as not to leave room for other players.  The subsidy point is more complex. Open access operators get no subsidy, nor pay any premium, though they only pay marginal track access charges which does provide hidden support.  In fairness, though, Wrexham & Shropshire were up against Virgin who receive massive taxpayer subsidy.  However, the whole panoply of regulation that is necessary to allow the 25 or so open access services to run every day is a big cost to the rail industry. Moreover, the existence of the East Coast open access operators may well make franchise bids for those services less remunerative for the taxpayer.

Moreover, more important, open access gets in the way of proper planning. Having to leave paths for open access operators on the East Coast has resulted in a less than optimal service pattern which could much more easily be provided by a single operator. Keeping the franchisees ‘honest’ is, in fact, an expensive business, and, in any case, we do have a regulator who could be empowered to do just that.

The whole affair, though, did give us a good laugh when Bob Crow, perhaps forgetting it was not a franchise commitment, said that the service should be nationalised. Oh, Bob, where can one start? Actually, though, the demise of the Wrexham service poses questions for the Right, too. It is rather ironic that the service is folding under a Tory dominated government, which is much more pro-competition than Labour, even in its New Labour incarnation. If Philip Hammond couldn’t save Wrexham & Shropshire, its hardly likely that he will be able to encourage many other open access operators to come to the market. Indeed, it may be that the McNulty review, which is looking at the structure of the industry and is considering various types of vertical integration that would necessarily put paid to open access.

Like lots of people, in theory I love the idea of plucky little open access battlers but my hard hearted economist brain suggests that they are a bit of mere frippery adding to the cost of the industry and contributing little other a few nostalgic services and routes to marginal towns that might once have been served by InterCity.

Train crossing cover-up undermines confidence

One of the saddest stories I have ever covered in my journalistic career was the deaths of two girls at a rail crossing at Elsenham in December 2005. It was made worse by the fact that I had once worked with Chris Bazlinton, the father of one of the girls, on a housing magazine and that made me take a particular interest in the story.

Indeed, rather controversially, I wrote a piece in The Sun at the time and I remember while travelling up there for the paper, getting a call from Network Rail playing down the significance of the story and trying to suggest it was just an unfortunate accident caused by the girls’ mistake. When I visited the site, I was utterly shocked by the all too obvious risks posed by the crossing. The situation at Elsenham is a bit complex, as the two platforms are not directly opposite each other but staggered and separated by both a road and pedestrian. The pedestrian crossing was controlled separately from the road crossing, allowing passengers rushing for a train to cross even once the road gates were down. This is what caused the two girls deaths as they crossed the tracks to catch the down train on the other side, and failed to spot a 70mph service bound for Stansted which killed them instantly. The train was coming round the curve north of the station, but according to the risk assessments carried out on the crossing, there was sufficient time for trains to be seen.

To my untrained eye, the little wicket gates that were left unlocked with just a warning light even when a train was approaching were a disaster waiting to happen. Network Rail continued to argue that the crossing was basically safe, although its original risk assessment was found to be flawed because of the two crossing keepers, only one, who reported no abuse, had been interviewed, while the other had seen people take risks.

Now, however, further evidence of the risks surrounding the crossing has come to light. An assessment of the risks at the crossing three years before the accident recommended that the crossing  that ‘consideration should be given to the practicality of incorporating the wicket gates into the inter-locking of Elsenham crossing controls and effectively lock them closed when trains are approaching’.

Apparently this evidence, contained in a section B the risk assessment report, had not been given to the Coroner at the inquest which gave a verdict of accidental death.  I am never one to exaggerate the risks of the railway but I have never forgotten the sight of that terrible little wicket gate that was so inadequate as a way of protecting rail users, especially as there was no ticket machine on the down side of the station, forcing any passengers for Cambridge and beyond to cross the tracks, something that is discouraged so strongly – even at times unnecessarily – on even very minor parts of the railway elsewhere. It was apparent to me than that the risk assessment procedure had either not been carried out properly or was inherently faulty. My instinct has been proved right. Let’s hope Mr Bazlinton now gets a new hearing on the tragic case of Elsenham.

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