Thursday, August 14, 2014

News: New rail operators need to support economic growth

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The new franchise holders for train operations in the North need to play their part in supporting economic growth in the Sheffield city region (SCR), but the cut backs have already begun.

The Northern and TransPennine Express franchises provide many rail services across the North of England, including all services into Rotherham. The process of procuring new operators is now underway, with both new franchises due to commence in February 2016.

A response to the consultation over the future of the franchises has been drafted on behalf of the SCR Combined Authority, the body that brings together an integrated transport authority (ITA) and an economic prosperity board (EPB) in order to align political decision making around strategic economic development and transport.

The response places emphasis on the economic growth agenda and the levels of investment planned for the region. It highlights the importance of rail provision to supporting economic growth and the need to service target growth areas, including Waverley. In terms of investment, the new franchise holders are being asked to support the joint calls by transport executives across the North (Rail North) for improved connectivity between northern cities and their connections to the international "gateways" - airports and ports.

Specifically, calls are being made for two trains per hour between Doncaster and Manchester via Sheffield, in addition to the Norwich - Nottingham - Liverpool service. The SCR should have three services each hour between Sheffield and Manchester offering a fast and consistently high quality inter city service.

Rolling stock is also highlighted as a key issue for the Northern franchise, where the average age of trains is over 24 years, with few trains under 20 years old. Most trains do not meet standards for accessibility.

As in the recent long term strategy from Rail North, the need for Rotherham to have improved rail connectivity is raised in the response. This may be by longer distance services, or by different patterns of local services. With its redeveloped station, Rotherham should have direct links to principle cities, including Manchester, as well as Manchester Airport. The response discusses the potential for a second TransPennine Express service between Doncaster and Manchester which "creates an opportunity to specify that at least one service operates via Rotherham."

The report states: "Rotherham, with a population of 125,000, is the largest town in the area between Leeds, Sheffield, York and Doncaster. Although it is considerably larger than Wakefield, Rotherham is not as well served by rail, having only local stopping services to Sheffield, Doncaster and Leeds with infrequent trains to York. Although there are three trains per hour between Rotherham and Sheffield, they do not operate on an even interval, reducing the attractiveness to potential passengers.

"There is a long standing aspiration to improve the frequency of services to Rotherham and provide direct links to additional destinations."

Other potential new services to Rotherham include a "Northern Express" faster service between Sheffield and Doncaster, and making more use of Northern's low frequency Sheffield – Pontefract – York route.

All these improvements will come at a cost and the government has started the refranchising by talking about "trade-offs" - for example, more routes but higher ticket prices or new trains but fewer routes.

The response stated that: "Whilst trade-offs may be appropriate, this must be seen in the context of wider growth, which is why the authority, through membership of Rail North, is pursuing involvement in franchising. We believe that future "zero growth" franchises will harm the economy.

"At a time when the rail network is experiencing unprecedented passenger growth, a reduction in service provision is not an acceptable trade-off to the SCR; instead, we wish to see a more ambitious focus on increasing patronage at low use stations, increasing their long-term viability, and improved connectivity."

The government will undoubtedly look to reduce the level of subsidy for the region. Although it has been falling since 2008/09, Northern has the highest subsidy per passenger mile of any franchise managed by Rail Executive. Passenger fare revenue represents only 36% of annual turnover, with direct financial support from the Department for Transport and via local transport bodies amounting to £324m in 2012/13. In comparison, the net subsidy to TransPennine Express amounted to £41m.

This week, Northern Rail, which is owned by a 50:50 joint venture between Serco Group plc, the international services company, and Abellio, a subsidiary of NS Dutch Railways, announced that it was restricting the use of off-peak travel.

Currently off-peak day singles and returns are only restricted in the morning peak period but from September 8, passengers will have to pay more for singles and returns to travel in the afternoon peak period between 4pm and 6:30pm.

Northern Rail website

Images: SYPTE

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