In the first of a series focusing on individual topics raised by the Railfuture response to the Williams review, South East Northumberland Rail User Group (SENRUG) chair Dennis Fancett highlights the lack of a coordinated timetable on routes served by multiple train operators. Arriva Cross Country and East Coast (now LNER) trains at Newcastle Central - photo by Russel Wills reproduced under Creative Commons.
One of the failures of the current franchising system - and which we must look to the Williams Review to resolve - is the inability to co-ordinate timetables in cases where different franchisees share the same route.
It’s true that each franchise renewal process includes an initial stakeholder consultation, often suggesting proposals for ‘re-mapping’; that is moving a whole route or service from one franchise to another. But that is not the same as coordinating timetables of different operators on the same line - operators who are often in competition with each other, but struggle to focus on the fact that all
operators will benefit if the overall market for rail is grown through a more appealing timetable.
It’s also true to say that in the North of England, the last TransPennine Express and Northern franchises were awarded at the same time with a joint consultation exercise beforehand, so we are starting to see a degree of co-ordination and strategic thinking as to what is needed for regional and local services.
But where it comes to long-distance services sharing the same route, no such coordination appears to exist. Franchises are let at different times and with scant reference to what the other franchisees may be doing. Worse, attempts to get franchise holders to co-ordinate voluntarily may fall foul of competition laws.
The section of the East Coast Main Line between Newcastle and Edinburgh, a distance of 124 miles, is shared by two operators, LNER and CrossCountry, and soon to be joined by a third (TransPennine Express). At times, three trains depart Newcastle for Edinburgh within 20 minutes of each other, chasing each other up the line, yet none of these three services offers a sensible calling pattern for the intermediate mid-sized market town stations namely Morpeth, Alnmouth for Alnwick and Berwick in Northumberland, plus Dunbar in Scotland.
This means that it is virtually impossible to travel within Northumberland by train. The service that stops at Morpeth doesn’t stop at Alnmouth or Berwick and vice versa. Gaps of 6 hours exist in the timetable for direct services between Morpeth, the county town, and Berwick, the strategically important borders market town.
Of the 3 trains within 20 minutes from Newcastle to Edinburgh, local campaigners acknowledge that at least 1, and possibly 2 of them should travel non-stop. But for the other we ask a sensible stopping pattern is followed, stopping at each of these key market towns and possibly Cramlington as well - soon to be Northumberland’s largest town by population. However, every operator wants every train to be the ‘fast’ service; it seems no-one is interested in providing a co-ordinated thought-through timetable to all the market towns in between. Franchise specifications are not addressing this, since the different franchises are being let at different times, without co-ordination. This is where we are lacking a co-ordinated strategy.
Of course, having one non-stop and one semi-fast service presents logistical difficulties for operators. By the time the same thinking is applied further down the line eg between York and Newcastle, it means the two services that leave Kings Cross 30 minutes apart would arrive at Edinburgh the same time, de-synchronising the return services or requiring the operator to hold one train unit for 30 minutes before it returns. This in turn requires an extra train unit, and this costs money. There is a limit to what operators can do voluntarily; it needs to be written in to the franchise specification so that it can be costed accordingly by all bidders.
Without a franchise obligation to act differently, it can be seen why operators favour the skip-stop pattern. The service that calls at station A doesn’t call at B, but the next service calls at B but not A. Yes, operators benefit by all trains taking the same overall journey length, but passengers lose out as travel between A and B becomes impossible.
Any strategy that does exist seems to work well for the big cities such as Newcastle, where every service of every operator will stop, but is failing and suppressing the economic development of the mid-sized market towns.
On Sundays, at Morpeth, it used to be the case that there were two northbound services to Edinburgh within 6 minutes of each other (one LNER and one CrossCountry), followed by a 6-hour gap with no service at all, then a further two services (again one LNER and one CrossCountry) within 6 minutes. Local campaign group SENRUG pleaded with both operators to plug the 6-hour gap for years but no avail. And then suddenly both operators, no doubt with their minds focused by the announcement of new entrants joining the market, conceded at the same time. As a result the station now has nothing for 3 hours (11:56 LNER to 14:41 LNER), then two trains within 6 minutes (14:41 LNER and 14:47 XC) and a further gap of 3 hours until the 17:41 XC.
Passengers look at timetable anomalies like this and lose confidence in the rail industry as a whole. A reasonable distribution of train services throughout the day is more important than who is running the trains. If timetables could be co-ordinated, the overall rail market grows and both operators will benefit.
The most logical solution is for one of the services at 14:41 and 14:47 to be moved to the train an hour earlier, and the other one to be transferred to the train an hour later, giving Morpeth an even two-hourly service throughout the day. But where is the guiding strategic authority that requires operators to do logical things? It doesn’t exist. Local voluntary campaign groups do what they can, in SENRUG’s case with considerable success, but it still needs an overall authority to develop a strategy that adequately addresses the needs of mid-sized market towns served by two or more operators.
We also know that from Morpeth, other than London, the most popular destinations are Edinburgh and York. Both cities are about 1 hour 20 minutes away. Both routes are served by two (and shortly to be three) operators. SENRUG has now almost achieved its objective of getting a service to and from each city at least every 2 hours throughout the day. To bridge the remaining gaps requires co-ordination between the operators and that is hard to achieve under the current system.
Whatever system replaces the current franchise models, it needs to be one that takes a strategic look at the overall timetable for the mid-sized market towns such as Morpeth, Alnmouth, Berwick and Dunbar, or mandates operators to work together to achieve sensible train service patterns for stations like these.
A clear policy as to how legitimate local service aspirations should be met is also required. The disinclination of Network Rail to invest in strengthening capacity for local services has led to two decades of bridging the gap by asking long-distance operators to carry out more and more local duties. Now the long-distance operators want to pull away from that. If they don’t, then new open access operators will eat their lunch, but Railfuture argues that before they are permitted to do so there must first be a massive investment in local services allowing good interconnection with long-distance services. That means infrastructure investment as well as new rolling stock.
Newcastle for instance has a half-hourly service to London for most of the day, but only an hourly service from Cramlington and Morpeth. This restricts the choice of long-distance services available by changing at Newcastle by half, since the local arrivals only connect with one of the two departures to London.
It’s clear that Cramlington needs a better train service. Its first service of the day to Newcastle, departing 08:05 is woefully too late, removing rail as an option for any hapless commuter that needs to start work before 08:45. But where’s the strategy for improving the service, given that there is conflict with earlier long-distance trains? Network Rail, in its Route Utilisation Strategy recognise the problem, but say they are not going to make capacity investments north of Newcastle and the answer is for more long-distance trains to stop at such stations. So, does this mean that we’ll see CrossCountry or TPE services calling at Cramlington? Apparently not, for in DfT’s CrossCountry franchise consultation, the proposal is put that far from serving any more mid-sized stations, stops at existing mid-sized stations should be withdrawn.
Once again, an overall guiding strategy is needed with a clear policy as to how these legitimate aspirations for mid-sized stations should be met, and that strategy must feed through to Network Rail investment plans. Railfuture will be diligent to ensure that whatever industry structure is recommended by the Williams Review delivers exactly that.
Williams Rail Review
Blueprint for the North
South East Northumberland Rail User Group