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Liberal Democrats back Northern rail overwatch, quiz Labour's second-guessing of eventual franchise winner

January 8, 2015 3:16 PM

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the Northern Futures conference in November "Decrepit trains such as the Pacers, which are literally ancient buses on rails, are not a fair way for people in the North to get to and from work. They would not be deemed acceptable on London commuter lines, and they are not acceptable in the North."

So Councillors Greg Down and Robin Ashby proposed an amendment to a Labour self-praising motion at Newcastle City Council which read

City Council notes that
• the 'zero growth zero investment' assumptions on which the current Northern franchise was let has led to stagnation in local services in the North East, and that this failure is entirely attributable to the previous Labour government's failure to invest in rail
• lengthy journey times and overcrowding on Transpennine services between the great Northern cities have been identified to be holding back economic growth and in need of considerable investment to meet aspirations for greater connectivity, job creation, and prosperity across the north of England
• the poor quality of Class 142 pacer units - an issue raised by the Lib Dem group on TWITA and in this chamber in 2010 - means that commuter routes into Newcastle and local services across the North East fall well below the standards demanded by a successful city region and modern economy: a regrettable consequence of the 'zero growth zero investment' Northern rail franchise policy agreed in 2004 by the previous government
• the Coalition government is overseeing considerable investment in Northern rail infrastructure, including the Northern Hub engineering works and the electrification of the Transpennine Liverpool-Hull route, and is currently developing proposals for a HS3 125mph service between Leeds and Manchester
• a risk exists that Newcastle and the North East may become a "branch line" to the high speed rail network, if North East regional leaders continue to lag behind the lead shown by the Manchester and West Yorkshire combined authorities and the leaders of Manchester and Leeds councils
Council therefore welcomes the agreement to establish the Rail North partnership of transport authorities across the North of England and supports the messages contained in the Long Term Rail Strategy, particularly the findings of paragraph 1 of the Executive Summary: "The North's rail network has experienced decades of under-investment that has now started to be addressed. Key routes will be electrified, and the North's biggest rail bottleneck will be rectified as part of the Northern Hub programme. The Government is promoting a national high speed rail network that will by 2033 link cities in the North to Birmingham and London"

City Council endorses the belated agreement that the North East Combined Authority should join that alliance, represented by the portfolio holder for transport, and supports the suggestion of greater local accountability for local rail services, including making the NECA portfolio holder for transport directly accountable for failure to deliver identified policy goals and aspirations.

Council resolves to work with other Rail North members to ensure that the DfT and new franchise operators:

- deliver increased rolling stock, including "cascading" of surplus Class 158 DMU stock on North West routes undergoing electrification to the Tyne Valley and Tyne-Tees services

- deliver growth in service speed and frequency and work to eliminate overcrowding

- investigate the feasibility of creating North East network extensions (e.g. Blyth-Ashington line) and capacity improvements (e.g. reopening of the Leamside Line and increased use of the Norton-Stillington line as freight diversionary routes)

- ensure that services and facilities continue to be accessible to all passenger groups

- ensure that services maintain appropriate levels of staffing to safeguard passengers (noting that the Tyne & Wear Metro system has long operated driver-only services)

- maintain appropriate annual ticket price increase formulas which recognise the needs to fairly share the burden of transport costs between passengers and taxpayers, and the interests of keeping transport costs affordable to the general public and provision of ongoing investment in upgrading infrastructure and rolling stock

In introducing it, Cllr Stone said : Lord Mayor, this motion undoubtedly seeks to burnish Cllr Forbes' credentials as the North East Combined Authority's Transport Tsar, and seeks to set out the brave new world we will shortly experience under his enlightened reign, whereupon the grateful citizenry will happily testify that say what you like about Nick Forbes, he made the trains run on time. Or perhaps not, if you are an unhappy Metro passenger.

Although the motion contains some laudable objectives that few could object to, I am however a little concerned that Cllr Forbes vision for North East rail services does need to be subjected to some critical analysis as there are quite a few things missing from it.
His reference to "zero growth assumptions" leading to stagnation in local services doesn't really provide the full picture. In fact, he should have said "zero growth zero investment assumptions", and he fails to mention that the current franchise was let under the assumptions made by the previous Labour government in 2004. I am pleased he mentions the need to replace the outdated Pacer units, which I have previously raised in this chamber and at the ITA, but he doesn't acknowledge that their continued use is a direct consequence of the "zero investment" assumptions of the previous Government.
He talks of the need for considerable investment in services between the great Northern cities, but doesn't mention the considerable investment the Coalition is putting into major infrastructure schemes and rolling stock upgrades, including the Northern Hub, and the electrification of the Liverpool-Hull transpennine route. The electrification of this line and the Manchester-Blackpool line offers the possibility of surplus diesel multiple units being "cascaded" to North East services with spare class 158 units allocated to replace the class 142 Pacers on the Tyne Valley and Durham Coast / Tees Valley services. I certainly hope that the new franchise arrangements will see Pacers withdrawn by 2020 in time to meet new disability access standards and I am pleased that Nick Clegg has issued support for this goal.
I am a little concerned about parts of the motion which appear not to adequately distinguish between the different franchises serving Northern cities - many are not provided by Northern Rail but by Transpennine Express and Cross Country. I am not clear what is meant by the establishment of a North East Business Unit within the Northern franchise - whether this entails a NECA governance unit allowing for liaison with Northern for services relating to the North East, or whether this entails establishment of a semi-autonomous operational delivery unit within the Northern franchise overseen by NECA or even a "Northeastern" sub-franchise. These would be major steps with considerable implications, and I'm not sufficiently clear what we are being asked to sign up to. I hope the leader can clarify this.
I am also concerned about whether NECA is stuck in the sidings in the bigger Northern rail picture. I have already mentioned the significant investment in the Northern Hub and the Leeds-Manchester spine. The city-region devolution powers being taken forward by the Leeds and Manchester city-regions include a big public transport focus, potentially including establishment of HS3 between Birmingham , Leeds, and Manchester. There is a very real risk that if these developments proceed, the Leeds and Manchester corridor, extending to Liverpool and Hull, will enjoy much greater connectivity than the North East, and that we risk becoming a branch line. The North East Combined Authority is quite literally going to miss the train if the region doesn't get its act together quickly. This falls directly within Cllr Forbes' remit , yet he is lagging behind Cllr Leese and Cllr Wakefield in Manchester and Leeds, both of whom seem to get on far better with Government than he does.
Cllr Forbes' motion talks of greater accountability for local rail services - that is good, but under the current arrangements he is directly responsible and so we will hold him accountable for any failure to deliver the promised improvements and aspirations. I look forward to him explaining how he is going to deliver some challenging goals.
The motion resolves to deliver increased rolling stock, greater comfort, capacity and wifi, deliver growth in service speed and frequency, and increase investment and patronage. He's inclusive too - wanting to enable disabled people, older people and women are not adversely affected by service changes. Presumably if you are a young person or male Cllr Forbes isn't interested. He also aims to do this without cutting services and whilst reducing subsidies , resisting further hikes in train fares, and resisting train crew reductions - opposing driver-only operation, although I've never heard him complain about this on the Metro.
Any transport supremo who can deliver significant improvements in rolling stock and increased services whilst reducing subsidies and freezing fares deserves our support. Sadly I suspect Cllr Forbes motion, whilst having some nice sentiments, isn't grounded in economic reality. It has a long way to go before we are convinced it demonstrates a credible understanding of the economics and a realistic strategy for rail in the North East.

Cllr Ashby said : Whatever Cllr Forbes aspires to, the winner of the Northern rail franchise has to deliver against a service specification established by experts and transport professionals against a background of the £172 million subsidy last year just to keep creaking along.

And with the very greatest of respect, that isn't him.

So if local authorities aspire to establish, monitor and enforce standards, my first question to him is : Where is the expertise to come from?

Are you going to hire consultants?

Is the North east Combined Authority going to hire staff?

Do Newcastle City Council staff have the necessary expertise to "increase value for money" while train fares are frozen, as he desires? I note from the consultation papers that fare levels in parts of the North are already below norms.

If our staff do have that expertise, their time would be far better devoted to increasing value for money in existing services delivery in the City.

This motion in its tail end is also sounding more like job protection for Labour's Trade Union paymasters rather than a revenue protection exercise.

As a weekly traveller on the Yellow Bullet and main line trains, I bear witness to new unmanned ticket barriers which substantially impact upon fare dodgers.

And to the swoops by Revenue Protection Officers if people manage to avoid barriers.

It's easy to raise false fears about driver-only services. Indeed, my former firm was hired by London Transport to work with local people in the then-poor areas East London. Our job was to explain why the driverless Docklands Light railway trains were safe and effective, which indeed they have proved to be.

But most importantly, the DLR has made transport links so much better that the areas through which it runs have picked up significantly economically and socially.

And that's what we need in this region.

We need more and better trains to get traffic off roads and enable people to move across the sub region in particular to job opportunities, to widen their shopping horizons, and for leisure. Better high speed links to London and Manchester would be great too, but I fear I won't see much in my lifetime whoever rules in London.

Improving in this region is the job for the winner of the Northern franchise. Absolutely we should be telling them our local and regional aspirations.

Remember , the winner will be committed to deliver

  • Contractual targets to reduce cancellations and delays by over 15% in the first 5 years;
  • A new incentive/penalty regime to ensure the maintenance of station and train facility standards;
  • A more local focus on performance, with monitoring and enforcement based on each of five sub-regions

But to second guess how Abellio, Arriva or Govia meet these and our aspirations, which in this motion wants to include stopping them making the money necessary to reinvest, would be foolish.

Unless of course the Labour Party will be telling us in its response that it has secured a commitment from Miliband and Balls to take Northern railways into public ownership so we can return to the golden days of British Rail when passenger numbers were a fraction of what they are today and our railways were a national laughing stock.

In the event, Cllr Forbes had already left the meeting so was unable to propose his own motion, or answer the questions put to him