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Railwatch 069 - October 1996

Road lobby

Labour's Keith Hill used transport question time in the Commons to ask who had been appointed to the board of London Regional Transport. The Streatham MP also queried what their primary occupations were.

It seems there are representatives from Unilever, Faber and Faber (publishers), Debenhams (department stores), Fisons (chemicals), Rank Xerox, Allied Dunbar, Good Housekeeping magazine, and of course, the Automobile Association!

On the same day, 17 May, Gordon Prentice (Lab, Pendle) asked what the replacement cost of the permanent way and other railway infrastructure was. Rail and Road Minister John Watts (or is it Road and Rail?) replied that, as at 31 March 1995, the gross replacement cost of Railtrack's tangible fixed assets was £19,366 million of which £9,097 million related to the track (Railtrack was sold for £2 billion.)

Charter failures

The then Labour Shadow Transport Secretary Clare Short asked which train service groups failed to meet their Passengers Charter standards when judged by the moving annual figures for (a) punctuality and (b) reliability to the end of 94/95 and 95/96.

Mr Watts replied: "The information requested is as follows:-

52 weeks to 31 March 1995

(a) Punctuality: Avon, Lancashire Local, North Wales Branches, Cardiff Valleys, LTS Rail, Scotrail Central, Central Inter-Urban, Manchester Local, ScotRail East, CrossCountry, Merseyrail City Line, Sussex Coast, East Coast, Mid Wales and Marches Transpennine, Gatwick Express, Northampton Lines, West Coast, Great Northern, North London Lines

(b) Reliability: Anglia Locals, Manchester Local, South Cotswolds, Avon, Manchester Long, South Yorks Long, Cardiff Valleys, Merseyrail City Line, South Yorks Short, Central Inter Urban, Mid Wales and Marches, Thameslink, Cornwall, Northampton Lines, Transpennine, Cumbria, Northern Long, West and Central Wales, East Midlands and Lincs Northern Short, West Yorks Long, Great Northern, North London Lines, West Yorks Short, Lancashire Local, North Wales Branches, Western Inter Urban, LTS Rail, North Wales Inter Urban

52 weeks to 26 March 1996

(a) Punctuality: Anglia InterCity, Gatwick Express, North London Orbital*, Avon, Great Northern, North Wales Branches, Central Inter Urban, Great Western, Peterborough/Cambridge*, Cross Country, Kent Link, South West Main Line, East Coast, Lancashire Local, Sussex Coast, East Suffolk*, Manchester Local, Thameslink, Felixstowe*, Northampton Lines, Transpennine, West Coast, Western Inter Urban

(b) Reliability: Avon, Great Northern, North London Orbital*, Cardiff Rail Co, Lancashire Local, North Wales Branches, Cornwall, Manchester Local, North Wales Inter Urban, Cumbria, Manchester Long, South Yorks Short, Devon, Merseyrail City Line, Thames, East Coast, Northern Long, Thameslink, Felixstowe*, Northern Short, Transpennine, West and Central Wales, West Coast, Western Inter Urban. * disaggregated 1/4/95

Private world

In a transport infrastructure debate in the House of Lords, Lord Astor of Hever (Con) gave the waiting world his opinion that the same magic which had touched the other privatised industries would transform the railways, "with staff committed and dedicated to the success of their operation to the benefit of passengers and shareholders. The glories of the Great Western Railway and St Pancras station were funded by shareholders. Public ownership, by contrast, has been characterised by closure and dilapidation.

"New owners are pioneering schemes to lure passengers back to rail, including linking bus and train timetables and tickets, better marketing, and park and ride schemes."

The new operator of Gatwick Express, says Lord Astor, will produce the kind of service standards which we are used to seeing on the airlines. (Like two hour check in times, dreadful seating and plastic food)

Operators have assured Lord Astor that clean trains are a priority, as are more secure stations and car parks, more Sunday and off-peak services, easier access for the disabled AND provision of passenger lounges.

Prism, which bought the misery line will begin "next year" to replace the unreliable slam-door stock with a fleet of new trains. (Who is building them?)

French MPs to whom Lord Astor had spoken "were filled with envy at our rail privatisation".

Lord Astor said the bus companies before privatisation were a shambles. "In nine years to 1995, costs per vehicle kilometre have fallen by 57%." (He conveniently forgot that passengers carried have fallen by almost as much!)

A little reality

Lord Berkeley said Lord Astor's speech had been a wonderful example "of what he hoped has happened."

He said there were pros and cons of private finance. It could supplement public sector spending. It could take risks in hope of future reward. He said the Channel Tunnel is one example, as is bus deregulation and Railtrack's new investment. (We're not sure what he meant there)

Some of the cons were demotivation of staff. Were they working for the public or the shareholders?

Network benefits may be lost with "the attitude of staff in booking offices to inquiries about other franchisees in some cases lamentable".

Privatisation of buses may be seen as a great success but has caused chaos. "Bus mileage has increased dramatically but passenger numbers and passenger mileage are dramatically down outside London"

There is a loss of public accountability. "It is becoming more and more difficult to get questions answered by ministers rather than chief executives of the various agencies"

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood, speaking as a Liberal Democrat, said she had no philosophical objection to having private sector funding for transport infrastructure.

However she felt that so far the private sector was only interested in "the honeypots". She criticised the private finance initiative saying it caused delays in getting schemes implemented and was not in any case suitable for handling schemes of a local or more modest nature.

"There is the contrast between the wish of public authorities to achieve an overall strategy for transport, and the private interest in achieving a profit."

Poor relations

Sir Alan Haselhurst expressed concerns in his constituency regarding the future of the Heron line (London Liverpool Street-Cambridge) following privatisation.

In an adjournment debate on 10 June, the Tory MP for Saffron Walden wanted assurancies that the initial franchise would be of long enough duration for the eventual linking of the line to Thameslink 2000 when it is built, to be considered.

He also thought that electrification between Ely and Peterborough would enhance the attraction of the line to future franchisees. He wanted the whole route infrastructure to be improved so that "the newer types of rolling stock" could use it.

He was concerned that the new Networker trains being introduced on the King's Cross-Cambridge route would reduce the Heron line to second class status. He was concerned that his constituents "will be left with 20-year-old type 317 rolling stock." Further "it would be unacceptable to continue to run unaltered 20-year-old rolling stock. "It is daft not to hold out the promise of new rolling stock once it is possible for it to use the Heron line" (Many other parts of the country are having to make do with 30-year-old trains. There are reports that the 317s are being promised to the LTS "misery" line, as one of the benefits of the privatisation process!)

Sir Alan also wanted the north curve from Stansted Airport reinstated.

In reply, Mr Watts said that he could reassure Sir Alan that the privatisation of the line would proceed rapidly.

The bad news was that, once in private hands, the connection with Thameslink 2000 would be at the whim of the Franchise Director and the Regulator. Unfortunately it would also require a link across north London which would depend on Railtrack.

New trains would have to wait until, and if, Railtrack decided to spend money on upgrading. Even then it would require whoever the franchisee turns out to be, to decide to spend money on new rolling stock. But, Mr Watts said, some franchisees had given a committment that, subject to the price being right and someone being found to come up with the finance, then they might consider refurbishing existing trains, so it's possible that whoever does win the Heron line contract might agree to do the same! (Very comforting for Sir Alan!)

Electrification of the Ely to Peterborough route would, of course be a commercial matter for Railtrack and the new owners of Freightliner. (We can see, from this exchange that in future ministers and MPs will have little power to influence what sort of rail service is provided)

Still waiting

As a contrast to this, during another adjournment debate, this time about the Gospel Oak-Barking line, Jeremy Corbyn quoted from a letter sent to the then Local Transport Minister Steven Norris, from the line committee following his visit early in the year,

Mr Corbyn said: "As passengers stood and shivered on decrepit stations waiting for 35-year-old decrepit 'heritage' trains to finally turn up - suffering delays and cancellations just as you did when you visited the line - they might well have found it hard to believe that they were commuters in the capital of a major industrial country nearly at the end of the twentieth century."

Neil Gerrard (Lab, Walthamstow) initiating the debate had earlier quoted from charter period 54 which saw 210 cancellations out of 968 services. In charter period 56, there were 284 out of 1,209, a cancellation rate of more than 20%.

He said £79,000 allocated to the line under the Government's cycle challenge scheme was in jeopardy because of difficulties in getting agreement between local authorities and Railtrack.

Mrs Margaret Hodge (Lab, Barking) added further figures. For the whole of 1995, one in 15 trains were cancelled, compared with one in 1000 on Thameslink. She also criticised rumoured replacement of present trains by class 141 units some time in 1998! She described them as unsuitable, being unfit for use even now.

Mr Watts, replying for the Department of Transport, believed privatisation would be the salvation of the route. Railtrack could undertake long-term planning with confidence. The financing of investment programmes has been moved into the more dynamic environment of the financial markets. (We have not heard from the City of London of a stampede of financiers rushing to invest in the Gospel Oak to Barking line)

"There is a contractually guaranteed level of train services."

The minister mentioned Chiltern, and LTS as examples of franchises let to companies pledging improvements, as will happen on the Gospel Oak line. "The passenger service requirement will be set on the basis of an expected increase in patronage following the completion of engineering works that currently so adversely affect the operation of this service." (No mention of the loss of patronage caused by trains breaking down?)

He further pointed out that both the European regional development fund and the transport policy and programme mechanism had drawn attention to the need to take a hard look at economic justification for investment.

Pay and perks

MPs voted themselves a 26% pay increase in July and during the furore in the national Press, interesting details of their motoring perks came to light. The Daily Express reported that they were raking in £6 million a year in car allowances. The bigger the car the MP ran, the bigger the take.

Of the 478 MPs who claim car allowances, 317 drive big cars, costing taxpayers on average £13,273 per year, per MP. Only 11 of the 650 MPs claim for cars with engines under 1300cc.

Some MPs with two cars make claims for both high-powered and middle-range cars. Scottish MPs who drive the 818-mile London to Glasgow round trip, instead of using their free first-class rail tickets, make more than £60 on every journey.

West Coast

Eleven MPs tabled a motion on 22 July calling for the West Coast main line to be upgraded for high speed trains and warned that the Franchise Director might only restore the line to 1970s standards. The MPs were Eric Martlew (Lab, Carlisle), Stephen Day (Con, Cheadle), Sir Patrick Cormack (Con Staff South), Roy Beggs (UUP, Antrim East), Liz Lynne (Lib Dem Rochdale), Gordon Prentice (Lab, Pendle), George Stevenson (Lab, Stoke South), Harry Barnes (Lab, Derbyshire North East), Alan Howarth (Con, Stratford-on-Avon), Thomas McAvoy (Lab, Rutherglen), Bill Michie (Lab, Heeley). Christopher Gill (Con, Ludlow) urged that high speed trains should also run to Shrewsbury.

Central Railway rejected

The Central Railways proposal for a new freight line from Leicester to the Channel Tunnel was rejected at the end of July as MPs headed off for the holiday, reported Chris Austin in Railnews.

Ministers received 13,450 letters opposing the scheme, and MPs along the route loudly condemned the propoal as "half-baked" and blighting properties in their constituencies. Angry people lobbied their MPs at Westminster and the promoters faced critics in the House before the debate.

Eight rail companies, including BR and Railtrack, lodged holding objections to ensure the interests of the existing rail network were protected from interference during construction, much of which was planned to be alongside existing main lines.

Chiltern Trains would have been particularly badly affected, as frequent, heavy freight trains would have shared tracks over much of their route via High Wycombe. In the event, MPs rejected the scheme and it cannot proceed further in the form proposed.

Chairman of the company promoting the scheme is Andrew Gritten, a former director of the Centre for Policy Studies - the right wing "think tank" - and author of an earlier report recommending rail privatisation.

Progess was made on Britain's next new railway, however, with the completion of the committee stage of the Channel Tunnel rail link Bill in the House of Lords.

Transport minister

John Bowis (Con Battersea) is "now responsible for all transport matters in London" according to the Department of Transport. Road and Rail Minister John Watts however "will cover all railway issues".

Tory donations

Three of the Conservative party's biggest corporate donors stand to make millions from the £2.5 billion sale of all three former BR leasing companies. The Guardian named merchant bank Hambros, Hanson Trust and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Comment by Michael Weinberg

Our MPs had the chance on 24 July to pay more than lip service to their pious protestations that more freight should be shifted from road to rail.

But what did they do? You guessed! They voted en masse to throw out proposals of the Central Railway Group to reinstate the Great Central line as a major piggyback route to the Channel Tunnel and so help to transfer millions of lorry loads off our overcrowded roads.

And why? Because a few people would find that the value of their houses might go down in price. Never mind that the vast majority of the electorate would have benefited by having less noise, pollution and freedom from juggernauts smashing and bashing their way round the country.

But widen the M1? Great! Tear a motorway from Dover to Plymouth? Why not! Harwich to the West Country? A six lane trunk road, of course. The Newbury by-pass? Even the local Liberal Democrat MP supports that.

But, good heavens, reopen a rail line and inconvenience a few middle class voters? Not likely chaps. Man the barricades! Do these MPs really want to protect the environment, as they do often profess? No wonder some people have lost faith in the political system!

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