Rail 679: Chiltern brings Birmingham closer to Marylebone

Chiltern is the franchise that got away. For a brief period, when the late Sir Alistair Morton was head of the Strategic Rail Authority, franchising was going to be a very different proposition from the current model. Bidders would be encouraged to put forward investment plans, which would be developed by new joint ventures called special purpose vehicles and in return would receive 20 year deals.

All sorts of ambitious schemes were put forward, such as tunnels under London and high speed sections for East Coast line and then the Treasury, suddenly realising that ultimately it would be the taxpayer who would have to foot much of the bill for these improvements pulled the plug. A 20 year South West Trains franchise earmarked for Stagecoach was hastily scrapped but the Treasury was too late to prevent a package of investment schemes linked to a 20 year franchise on Chiltern from going through.

Now, a decade on, we are seeing the fruits of this arrangement. Chiltern has just launched a new ‘Mainline’ service to Birmingham, using old Mark 3 coaches which, thanks to track improvements by Network Rail, take a shade over 90 minutes between Birmingham Moor Street and Marylebone, which is only 10 minutes slower than the Virgin services. The upgrade, part of a £250m series of improvements agreed with the Department for Transport, is paid for by allowing Network Rail to charge higher track access charges over the next 30 years.

Therefore as Adrian Shooter, Chiltern’s energetic chairman admits, that will commit a future franchisee to paying extra for the improvements that have been made. This can be likened to a mortgage, based on people’s future expected income except that the bulk of it may be paid off by future owners.

One can see why the tight fisted Treasury does not like the arrangement but actually Chiltern has delivered a whole series of improvements. This latest project is Evergreen 3 and the other two schemes resulted in doubling of part of the route and improving other sections of line to remove speed restrictions. The route now has a 100mph line speed for much of the southern section, whereas in some parts it used to be anything ranging from 70mph to 25mph.

I went up on the first train to Birmingham and it was difficult not to be impressed. As regular readers know, I have not always been convinced that the privatisation of the railways has delivered any of the promised benefits, but here was one of the few examples of private sector initative actually delivering improvements. It was instructive that Chris Green who was responsible for Network SouthEast and the concept of Total Route Modernisation in the years running up to the privatisation of the railway, told me on the train that in his BR days he would not have conceived of Chiltern running trains all the way to Birmingham. He said that they ran to Banbury and they perceived the service as being primarily a commuter line, with a few regional services. Running all the way to Birmingham was the idea of Shooter and his colleagues who ran the line before privatisation and bid successfully to run the franchise, which by then included a commitment to run to Britain’s second city (sorry, Manchester) at privatisation. Shooter has been pushing his Birmingham service ever since, and he says, ‘I have accumulated a field full of Mark 3s over the years in anticipation of running this service’.

And jolly nice it is too. Mk 3 coaches are spacious and airy, and Chiltern has refurbished them tastefully in grey, and there is none of the horrid lighting which characterised First Great Western’s refurbishment of its High Speed Train sets on which I had the misfortune to travel again the other day. (There is nothing bleaker than the last train at night on these trains, as the bright lights prevent dozing off in the same way that the Stasi used to torture is prisoners by leaving bright lights on in their cells.).

Sorry, I digress. Chiltern’s approach to first class – ooops, we are supposed to call it Premium Economy as Shooter abolished First Class on his trains years ago – is innovative, too. People sitting in the ‘Business Zone’ will be charged an extra £20 for the wider seats and extra legroom, and the at seat services of meals and drink for which they will, though, have to pay. The idea is to provide a cheap upgrade, enabling people to work better away from the madding crowd but not to make businesses pay for glasses of wine and the like. I like the explanation and sound bite from Thomas Ableman, the company’s marketing director: ‘Businesses told us that space to work and a decent internet connection were absolutely essential. They also told us that additional privacy at key times for increased productivity was valuable. What they didn’t value was paying over £100 extra for a sandwich, pretzels and a single glass of wine.’ Chiltern executives feel that this may lead to a wider change in the way that First Class is operated across the industry.

There is, too, free wi-fi throughout the train, another policy that may well take off. Making people pay for wi-fi – which incidentally is often patchy and slow – seems to me a mean and counterproductive policy. Once the expensive wi-fi has been installed, why not provide it as part of the service, rather than trying to recoup a small amount of money which smacks of the Ryanair approach to customer service. It is rather like trying to charge people to use their mobiles. In any case, it will just push people into using their own internet connections on their phones, which, though less convenient, is free.

Given that this was the type of service that ministers are supposedly keen on, it was odd, therefore, that on the inaugural train, it was Michael Portillo – transport minister in the late 1980s – who travelled up to Birmingham rather than any current incumbent. Nor did the Department for Transport issue a press release advising passengers of this new fast service to Birmingham. Indeed, the last mention of Chiltern on the DfT website was back in June under the headline ‘Chiltern Railway – Penalty under S57A of the Railways Act 1993 (as amended)’ which relates to a rather minor infraction, which I have mentioned previously in this column Rail 668). This related to the late delivery of two station improvements, and two timetable changes ’which were not properly authorised by the Department for Transport and which could, if unrectified, have significantly reduced the value of the franchise to the Department’.

Yet, the Department, in the person of Theresa Villiers, found time last month to announce : ‘Space for up to an extra 8,800 rail passengers is being created on key commuter services in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle’ which involved the introduction of a few extra carriages, mainly on the Northern franchise.

This suggests that perhaps the Department doesn’t like Chiltern. Sure, the improvements were a few months late as the coordination between Network Rail and Chiltern somewhat broke down, but nevertheless the Birmingham Mainline initative seems to be just the sort of thing that the Department wants to see under its new franchise arrangements: new services, investment from the train operator, and private sector initiative.

Chiltern’s service between London and Birminghamj  deserves better than being a secret that few people know about. Certainly Virgin must be a bit concerned since it ran a publicity campaign to coincide with the Chiltern launch.

I suspect there’s two main reasons for the Department’s lack of interest and even apparent hostility towards Chiltern and this initative. First, Chiltern’s record highlights the paucity of similar investment from other train operators. Secondly, and more pertinently ,I doubt very much that the Department wants to advertise the fact that there is actually a second rather good line to Birmingham which the great unwashed may take to mean that there is no need for the High Speed Line. Now even I, as a HS2 sceptic, recognise that having two trains per hour to Birmingham with a couple of hundred seats each is not quite the upscale envisaged by HS2 even if Shooter’s collection of coaches suggests he is ready to expand the number of trains should demand require it.  Nevertheless, I suspect that the Department may have felt that the new service risks confuses the message about HS2 by showing what can be done with existing infrastructure

Above all, though, I suspect that the Department is rather wary of competition because ultimately it recognises that it foots the bill for the railway and that competition might lead to increased demand for improvements and, indeed, a bigger bill for the taxpayer. As I have said many times before, our quasi-privatised railway is replete with little ironies and even some quite big ones.

Ryder Cup venue bid by St Pancras

Regular readers may remember that I wrote several times about the mystery of the near football field space beyond the Eurostar buffer stops at St Pancras. Despite considerable effort, no one managed to explain what the purpose of this space with all sorts of guff being told to me about security and ‘elf and safety. This advertisement has at last made me realise its true purpose (with thanks to Rupert Brennan Brown for solving this puzzle for me).

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