Let’s re-think trains

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Virgin East Coast line

Readers will be aware of the importance that Just about Travel places on rail travel as a means for enjoying day-trips, weekend breaks and domestic holidays. The very first holiday was long before Dr Beeching’s cuts and I remember it involved catching a train from Worcester Shrub Hill station to the nearest stop for a caravan holiday at what is now Brean Leisure Park.

Since then, like millions of others I have used the train extensively both as a commuter and a tourist. During that time steam has died out on mainlines to be resurrected as a tourist attraction in itself on the many dozens of heritage railways in the UK. In Europe as a whole, I saw one estimate that said heritage railways are worth €40 billion a year to their local economies. I have lived through any number of British Rail and then BR administrations and then into privatisation.

As a regular traveller on GNER from London to Leeds, York and the occasional foray to Edinburgh, I didn’t have problems with the service but GNER had probably overbid in order to operate the route. When GNER lost its franchise partly due to the financial mess its owners were in and partially due to overbidding, the government awarded the franchise to National Express which, in hindsight, had also overbid for the route.  National Express didn’t even operate the route for two years before it handed back the franchise in 2009 because it also got its sums wrong.

East Coast Trains – a time when the government had direct control

In public ownership for the next five or so years, East Coast trains returned to the government a billion pounds and many felt that the line should remain in public hands. But no, in 2015 the franchise was awarded to a consortia of Virgin Trains and Stagecoach and was to be called Virgin East Coast. That attempt to run the line economically has lasted just over three years and, on Wednesday, we heard that it would no longer operate the franchise and the line would be in public ownership again. Why can Virgin West Coast operate within its franchise but Virgin East Coast cannot?

The east coast line will now operate as LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) until 2020 when a new franchisee will take over.

So far then, Virgin Trains, Stagecoach, Sea Containers, (the owners of GNER,) and National Express have tried to operate the line successfully and have failed. That only leaves First Group ( who operate First TransPennine, Great Western, Hull Trains, Southwest and Heathrow Connect as the only home grown company to have a go. Other train operators like Deutsche Bahn who own Arriva Trains Wales and have declined to rebid for the Wales franchise this year, Abellio (who seem to have problems running First ScotRail)  and Govia who operate Great Northern, Southern and Thameslink trains (and who would want to give them any more railways to operate) don’t have a good track record (forgive the pun) with passenger groups.

There needs to be fewer crowded trains with more luggage room for travellers

MTR – The Chinese company that operates the Hong Kong Mass Transport System and who will start operating Cross Rail later this year (and which is also shortlisted for the Wales franchise) is a potential contender to run the franchise in the future as might be Serco who are in partnership with Abellio to run Merseyrail. It also operates the Caledonian Sleepers.

But why should we consider any of these? The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has already said that Stagecoach and Virgin would be allowed to bid for other franchises in the future. How many more debacles must we face before a complete re-think on how we run railways is undertaken?

The value of a reliable and clean rail service cannot be underestimated in terms of tourism as the success of the Borders Line in Scotland shows. If it weren’t for tourists would the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh service operate at all other than as a public service? The same might be said of the Mid Wales line.

Many years ago I made a number of suggestions in Just about Travel. Let me resurrect a few that I still think are relevant.

1 – Train operators should be responsible for their infrastructure. Having Network Rail looking after railway lines and maintenance just means one side can blame the other for delays.

2 – Either have one railway covering the whole of the UK ( as happens in most of Scotland and Wales) or allow any railway company to operate on the same lines so there is true competition. At present most service are monopolies in all but name.

3 -Allow railway companies and airlines to sell a single ticket covering journey to and from the airport as well as a flight in order to reduce congestion at airports. The system would work a bit like PlusBus.

Scot Rail train

ScotRail pulling into Tweedbank on the Borders Line. Trains making a big contribution to tourism development

4 – Expand the role of train companies to sell all-in-one subsidised tickets to attractions. Why can’t they also sell tickets that include hotel accommodation?

5 – Allow long distance travellers to catch “peak hour” trains to major destinations if the trains arrive after 10am. In some instances the first cheap fare that can be bought (eg to London) means you don’t arrive till after midday making it impossible just to have a day out. The same applies in the evening rush hour where long distance travellers are restricted in their travel until the rush hour is over meaning they get to their destinations close to midnight.

6 – Consider the train network as a tourist enhancer rather than a tourism detractor and carry information packs about destinations. This can be charged back to the local tourist destinations.

Above all, an independent enquiry should be established to offer reasons why the organisation  of our trains  seems shambolic.

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