North of East Coast Eden

On June 26th, the UK Department for Transport published its Consultation on the East Coast Rail Franchise, to which all assiduous anoraks will have replied by the closing date of September 18th. The summary of results are to be published, along with the Invitation to Tender it’s supposed to inform, in January 2013.

Even those who use the Edinburgh-King’s Cross trains on a regular basis may react with “who cares?”. After privatisation in 1994, Sea Containers ran it for a decade under its GNER subsidiary before National Express made an over-generous bit to take it over but was forced to hand it back into public hands after two years, since when “East Coast” has been a bit of a black sheep—a private company run by the public under a Tory government.

And, since it’s a Tory government, they want shot of it back into the private sector. At the launch, Rail Minister Theresa Villiers said:

“There are exciting changes on the horizon for the East Coast Main Line. It is set to receive a brand new fleet of InterCity Express trains. The next franchise will be up to 12 years in length, giving the operator greater opportunities to invest in improvements that will benefit passengers.

“The consultation outlines what we expect the next operator to deliver, including better service quality, improvements to stations, the roll out of smart-ticketing technology and good levels of punctuality. Bidders will need to share with us their plans to improve the passenger experience.

“The East Coast Main Line is a key part of our nation’s transport infrastructure, providing heavily used and economically significant services between north and south. Before we let this franchise, we want to hear from the people who use East Coast and listen to their ideas on better services.”

This service is actually the premier franchise in the Tories’ fractured rail system. Heavy investment in electrification and 225 trains in the 1980s made this line very profitable. GNER paid £1.3bn and innovated on livery, services and quality. But the 10% growth projected to fund the £1.4bn that National Express subsequently bid did not materialise and service quality suffered. By November 2009, re-negotiation talks had ground to a halt and John Prescott could soon happily boast of “enjoying a nationalised bacon roll with his nationalised cup of tea” when he used the service next.

But such a state of affairs is anathema to the present government so they are moving to complete the transfer back into a private franchise by Christmas 2013. The consultation can be seen as a sop or a serious attempt. But what is clear is that the DfT has a pretty sturdy pair of blinkers on when they look at options. The route map were discussing is:

East Coast Route Map with Connecting Services

As a business, it has proved robust and justifies BR’s early investment. But now that £2bn has been spent improving the West Coast line (WCML) and more is to be spent on the Midlands to Sheffield, the ECML is in for a period of competition. East Coast have already shown themselves to be too narrow in their thinking.

Whereas their main innovation in 15 years was to run (unprofitable) trains through Edinburgh to Glasgow, both Virgin and Cross-Country introduced Edinburgh-York-Leeds-(Midlands/Birmingham/West Country) services with smaller trains that proved both popular and profitable. Nonetheless, East Coast has grown to carry record numbers of passsengers.

Main East Coast Passenger Journeys, 2011

This shows by far the bulk of journeys to be in England. No service North of Edinburgh registers and Edinburgh makes it on the list only through its traffic to London and Newcastle. Oddball situations like Dunbar do not register at all.

So, when the DfT consultation showed up in Edinburgh on July 17th, it was understandable (if rather inexcusable) that the top section of their map beyond Edinburgh was missing entirely and they were unprepared to discuss much about services in the missing areas, other than they would be continued.

It was not a large audience (perhaps two dozen) but it consisted mainly of local lobbyists with a fixation on their own little patch, leavened by Sarah Boyack and Mark Lazarowicz who chipped in some astute observations as regular users of the service to date. So, in terms of service improvements for the 1m+ passengers from Edinburgh, little was said. But there was, for example, little mention of:

  • distinct ‘real’ express services stopping at Newcastle, York and nowhere else
  • providing room for a spacious experience—in contrast with airplanes
  • connecting directly beyond London to Chunnel and/or South Coast
  • broadening the catering selection, especially on longer journeys
  • providing adequate luggage storage, perhaps in a luggage car
  • better co-ordination with Network Rail to provide same-platform interchanges

While those who showed from DfT and East Coast were well intentioned and genuinely appeared to want to stimulate a consultation, it was obvious that they would have felt more comfortably at home at their next two gigs in Newcastle and Leeds. They were unprepared for discussion about:

  • Provision of express services within Scotland as ScotRail does such a poor job of it
  • Co-ordinating with ScotRail/Virgin/X-Country of regular service to Dunbar/Berwick
  • Provision of more comfortable sleeper seats (c.f. airlines) to Inverness/Aberdeen
  • Rethinking services beyond Edinburgh in light of the EGIP electrification project

These latter seem particularly relevant as the new ICE trains will not only be fast but capable of switching power between electric and diesel as the line allows. Clearly, setting the franchise at 12 years means we will have a long time to live with it if Scotland does not get its premier rail service with the rest of the world right. Given, on the basis of this meeting, that the present senior staff ill understand Scottish requirements, it behooves anyone out there with proposals for improvement to get them in well before September 18th.

And spell them out in plain English, preferably in one-syllable words, so there can be no doubt.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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