The new Northern franchise represents a shift in thinking about the railways in the North. The old franchise was based on the premise that there was no growth but the new one, due to start in the Spring, is predicated on increased rail use and consequently includes expansion and improvement of services.
The timing of the Northern franchise could not have been better for those seeking to improve the local rail network. The invitation to tender was issued in February, just before the election campaign hotted up and consequently, with the Conservatives suddenly discovering that there were lots of constituencies north of Watford, it had to contain lots of good news. The creation of something called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ (a term which will be banned from this column except in inverted commas) meant that politically it was impossible not to promise lots of goodies just in time for xmas for both Northern and TransPennine.
And so it turned out: New trains, scrapping of the Pacers, 200 extra services per weekday and 300 on Sundays, and various other improvements with only a bit of obfuscation about who exactly would pay for all this. All three bids for the Northern franchise had lots of promises about improvements.
Certainly, Alex Hynes, the Managing Director of Northern Rail, the current train operator which is jointly owned by Abellio and Serco, is convinced that the new franchise will be a game changer, transforming rail services in a way that was not envisaged in the current deal that started in 2004. I spent a day touring part of the network just before the franchise announcement with Hynes who told me: ‘The old contract was negotiated at a bad time with the Strategic Rail Authority when it had run out of money because of having to bail out Railtrack. This is completely different.’
The improvements have, in fact, already started. Hynes decided to show me the newly electrified line between Manchester and Liverpool. We met at the lovingly restored Manchester Victoria station which can now boast the only Starbucks on a Northern Rail station, situated in a previously abandoned area next to the ticket office which itself looks unchanged since 1844. Indeed, the upstairs offices are still vacant and I suggested to him that Northern should let them out cheaply to artists seeking space to work, since such accommodation is increasingly difficult to find in city centres: ‘That’s not a bad idea, I’ll look into that’, he said.
He showed me one of the consequences of the boom in usage on his ‘no growth’ franchise – a series of barriers and notices with platform numbers just behind the newly installed ticket barriers: ‘The Xmas market crowds are so big that we have to manage the passengers, getting them to wait for particular trains in the pens.’ Victoria station is right under the Manchester Arena and Northern Rail is getting better at managing massive events, having learnt from the experience of the Tour de France Grand Depart in Yorkshire last year which, Hynes reckons, ‘we got a lot right, but it was also a learning experience’.
He attributes Northern’s recent growth, currently running at an impressive 5 per cent, to both the improvement in services over the years with better punctuality – ‘we are no longer improving but it is not getting worse’ and wider social factors: ‘We are becoming more like London with a growth in white collar jobs in town centres. That means unlike the factory workers of the past, these people are taking the train to get to work in town centres’. As we leave Victoria station, he points to several big development sites: ‘I’ve been told that they are building 13 new hotels in Manchester at the moment’, he said. Town centres are becoming increasingly important in other respects. The shopping district in Leeds is a huge magnet, widely recognised as the best in the North, and Leeds station therefore is crowded seven days out of seven.
There are other factors, too. Like elsewhere, young people are flocking to the trains as they can use their mobile devices while on the go, something that is not possible if they are driiving. Hynes has noticed an interesting contrast in the way under 30s buy tickets: ‘They would not be seen dead at a ticket office. They want to buy in advance, which is why we have started offering that facility on the Manchester – Liverpool route but they don’t do it a month or even a week in advance. They buy the ticket the night before, as that is how they run their lives. As a train operator, we have to adapt to that.’
There is a real old-fashioned sparks effect on the Liverpool Manchester services where there is currently an 11 per cent annual increase, some 6 per cent more than the average across the franchise. Hynes puts this down not just to electrification, but to the fact that there is now a consistent service: ‘In the past, they might have got a Pacer or, better, a 150 or 156, but now they know that they will have a pleasant electric train. That encourages regular users’.
In the December timetable changes, several other routes to places such as Preston and Wigan became electrified, which will not only improve services on those lines but lead to a 13 per cent increase in capacity across the network. Thanks to getting an agreement with the Department for Transport, Northern is keeping all the old stock cascaded because of electrification: ‘We considered where to put all these trains and decided that it was in the North West where there was the greatest need and they will nearly all go there’. He cites the example of Bolton where currently people cannot get on the peak trains and now all the morning services will have at least six carriages, the maximum possible because of platform lengths.
Northern is still the most expensive network in terms of subsidy, receiving around £300m per year with passenger income covering only about half the operational costs but Hynes points to the fact that this is mainly the result of railway economics: ‘There is a lot of track in the North and the franchisee has to pay the track access charges, and gets subsidy to do this. If the money were paid direct, then we would not need so much subsidy – or indeed possibly any at all’. Part of the high cost base is the fact that the trains, though, are all double-staffed, something that Hynes reckons will not change: ‘the platformS are simply not geared up to one person operation and since so many stations are not staffed, there is a revenue issue too. ‘ Indeed, as we talk, the friendly conductor comes round to check our tickets.
Hynes is convinced that the politicians understand this, and are no longer looking to cut services, as had been threatened during the consultation period for the franchise. As we pass the 319 ex Thameslink train that has now been named, by George Osborne no less, Northern Powerhouse, for the second tme, Hynes tells me he is convinced that the politicians’ promises about improvements to rail services in the North cannot be reversed: ‘The north is seen as a key political battleground and at the 2020 election if they have not delivered on better rail services, people will ask what all the idea of the Northern Powerhouse was about. We are the sixth biggest economy in the world and this morning I travelled on a Pacer train from Stalybridge. People simply won’t tolerate that any more’.
Northern remains a spartan network. There is no catering, fewer than a third of the 464 stations have any kind of ticket selling facility, mechanical or human and there will still be plenty of DMUs chundering around the network in the 2020s. However, no longer will it be a Cinderella railway. The railways are seen as crucial to creating a perception, at least, that the North is able to compete with the South. While HS2 is seen by many in the North as important, in many respects it is the ordinary day to day services, used by thousands of commuters daily, that will contribute most to that view. Given all the hype and the political heft, people now have high expectations of improvements and if they are not met, there will be trouble for ministers and the railway companies. Arriva will need to up its game given the high level of complaints on two of its other two franchises, CrossCountry and Arriva Trains Wales. It could do worse than hire Hynes whose attention to detail and focus on performance is legendary has earnt him a reputation as one of the up and coming stars on the railway.
Virgin fail again
I travelled up to Manchester to meet Hynes early one cold winter morning and had to get up early to take the London Midland service, changing at Stoke. Even with my old man’s card, I saved nearly £100 on the return journey because of Virgin’s ridiculous policy of pricing a peak time single from Euston in the morning rush hour at £164 without a rail card and £114 with one. Until September, Virgin had allowed railcard holders to travel on any train but, as I have mentioned before, that concession has ended which means I will probably be using more London Midland trains in the future.
They are fine except for the fact that they have no catering. And ironically, that was removed in the aftermath of the 2008 but none other than the excellent Alex Hynes who confessed this to me: ‘Govia had just taken over the franchise and then the crash happened. It meant we had to cut costs to the bone as we could no longer make any money on it. It was a great shame as we had big plans for the franchise’.
Indeed, that is the problem with franchising. It is very much subject to short term economic considerations whereas the railway is a long term business. Which is another reason why pricing people off the peak hour – but often empty – trains is plain daft.
Mystic Wolmar woes again
Mystic is too embarrassed to reprint the predictions he made last year (Rail 765 or on my website) but suffice to say they were all wrong bar one. The election prediction was completely awry (Lab biggest party), which then killed off the next prediction about franchising. He predicted no growth on the railways (it was reduced but was still more than 2 per cent) and Boris Johnson’s early departure (made unnecessary by the Tory election victory). Only on the fifth, predicting a crisis over investment did the crystal ball visionary get it right – so 1/5. Watch in the next issue for what will probably not happen in 2016!