Rail competition is finally delivering as passenger demand hits new high (Yorkshire Post)

CPS Research Fellow Tony Lodge argues in the Yorkshire Post that rail competition is finally delivering, as passenger demands hit a new high.

To view the original article, visit the Yorkshire Post website.

Tony Lodge“Twenty years ago this autumn, the controversial Railways Bill became law. The curtain was brought down on 45 years of the nationalised railway network which had operated since the late 1940s as British Railways.

Rail privatisation pitched Tory free market ideology against Labour’s then (and now re-heated) support for state control, but the debate descended into acrimony and political point scoring as the Major government stumbled from one crisis to another.

The 20 years since the start of the rail privatisation have often been chaotic, sometimes tragic, certainly expensive and never free from fierce debate. The Southall crash of 1997 was closely followed by the rail accidents at Hatfield, Potters Bar and Great Heck, near Selby, in the early 2000s. These events, particularly Hatfield, helped expose the failure of Railtrack and the need for better infrastructure maintenance.

Critics of privatisation will highlight the failures of the past but some important points need to be understood to explain how the policy, which had a difficult start, is fundamentally correct and with the right tweaks and political support can now better deliver for the passenger, the industry and the country.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating developments is the emergence of real long-distance rail competition between government-sponsored franchised companies and private rail operators, but still on far too small a scale. Yorkshire passengers are unique in that they are particularly benefitting from this development as two “open access” rail operators, Grand Central and Hull Trains, connect the county with London and compete with the main line franchise holder, East Coast.

Statistics show that this competition has delivered lower fares, higher revenue, more routes, better station facilities, happier and more passengers. Importantly all the companies involved, including East Coast, are benefitting from this new railway landscape as they seek to strive to win more passengers and deliver better services. This is even resulting in significant private sector improvements in some station facilities which had been allowed to significantly decline.

An unlikely location for this crucible of rail competition is Wakefield, a Labour stronghold and represented in the Commons by the new Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh. The city’s past importance is reflected in it having two large railways stations at Westgate and Kirkgate. Where the importance of Kirkgate, completed in 1854, declined in the 1970s its neighbour at Westgate enjoyed investment and importantly served the busy Leeds to London Intercity main line services. Kirkgate’s last and very slow London train departed in 1978; it then suffered semi-abandonment and long term decline.

It has fallen to private rail operator Grand Central, in its plans to compete with franchised London trains out of Westgate to help restore Kirkgate to its former glory. Though a listed building, it was the former Labour Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, who declared the station the “worst in Britain” four years ago.

Grand Central services have been using Kirkgate since 2010 and thus provide Wakefield passengers with choice, but the state of that station was understandably deterring would-be passengers even though passenger growth has been significant. The station had also become a magnet for crime and vandalism. But when the largely privately-funded £4.6m redevelopment of the station is complete next year it will undoubtedly rival Westgate, which is coincidentally being rebuilt, though with public money.

Importantly, Wakefield’s rail competition has delivered some interesting benefits; most of the Grand Central Kirkgate services reach London in just two hours, faster than those run by the franchise, East Coast, out of Westgate. The “on the day” and internet fares are cheaper and the company uses previously ignored “freight only” routes to reach the main line. This innovative approach also allows Grand Central to serve new towns and cities and connect them directly with London, such as Halifax and Mirfield where London-bound passengers have had to previously change trains.

The initial ambitions of rail privatisation in 1992 were “to improve the quality of railway services by creating many new opportunities for private sector involvement. This will mean more competition, greater efficiency and a wider choice of services more closely tailored to what customers want”.

Today, arguably 20 years late, the ambition is upheld in real evidence from places like Wakefield; rail competition is finally delivering for passengers but on too small a scale. The policy was and remains right, but it must now be more widely applied. Other Government-sponsored rail franchises should face competition from open access services in the way East Coast faces competition at Wakefield and elsewhere.

Since 1993, the rail network has witnessed unprecedented growth. Passenger traffic has doubled with UK rail passenger numbers growing faster than all other European countries. It is expected to double again by 2030. The explosion in demand for rail in the last two decades has reversed all previous predictions. More people are travelling by train than at any time since 1929 on a rail network almost half the size and enjoying the highest levels of safety on record.

Conservatives can take credit for this slow but popular evolution of competition on the railways. They can effectively oppose Labour’s call for the renationalisation of rail services by supporting more competition of the kind we see successfully working in Yorkshire, even though it is still largely in Labour seats where the results are being most enjoyed.”

To view the original article, visit the Yorkshire Post website.

Date Added: Monday 14th October 2013