Tony Lodge: Labour’s failure to see the value in rail competition (Yorkshire Post)

Tony Lodge, CPS Research Fellow and author of ‘Rail’s Second Chance‘, writes for the Yorkshire Post.

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

“THE battle lines on rail are drawn. Next year the two main parties will go head to head in the quest to win votes with very clear dividing lines; the first general election to have such clear opposing manifestos for a generation. While many accused Tony Blair of offering a lighter shade of some Tory policies, then Ed Miliband is proposing a break with New Labour’s fundamental acceptance that markets and competition are good.

Calls for rent controls and energy prices freezes are significant but support for a return to long-term Government owned railway operators has exposed a worrying failure by Labour to acknowledge how more competition on rail across the North, between private companies, has delivered more routes, happier passengers, innovative ticketing, lower fares and better trains.

The North, particularly Yorkshire, has become an important example of how private non-subsidised ‘open access’ rail companies can compete against Government-sponsored rail franchises and deliver these key benefits. Passengers heading north from King’s Cross can reach the county using either East Coast, Grand Central or Hull Trains; they all compete for passengers. At York, Wakefield and Doncaster, these train companies again compete to take travellers to the capital. In the latest rail passenger survey both Grand Central and Hull Trains topped the satisfaction poll, with East Coast behind. This competition will continue to thrive after the Government has awarded a new East Coast franchise; the private company which secures the rights to run this valuable rail franchise will have its own ideas to challenge the competition they face, and this will similarly be tackled both on fares and quality of service by the competitors. This should be welcomed.

But Conservatives should be doing so much more to deliver more rail competition and tear down the barriers which still exist; so often put up by transport civil servants who still cling to the era of British Rail and who seem to feel they should still be micro-managing the railway. It is fair to say there has not been a rail minister with a northern constituency for years; the last four have all been from the South but this is no excuse not to encourage the right services for passengers in this region.

A key decision will be taken by the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR) in the Autumn when it will rule whether to accept Network Rail’s agreement that new ‘open access’ high speed tilting trains can be permitted to start operating between Leeds, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester and London Euston from 2018. These vital new services can bring long overdue high-speed long distance rail competition with Virgin on the West Coast Main Line; at Manchester the services will then take the trans-pennine line, which will then be electrified, to serve the key route to Leeds and operate in competition with existing services.

These new Great North Western Railway (GNWR) Pendolino services will deliver a stark comparison between the dated, unpopular and rickety ‘pacer’ trains which have been trundling around Yorkshire’s railways for far too long; alternatively passengers will be able to travel in modern luxury, whether they want to go between Leeds and Manchester or Huddersfield and London. Quite rightly, many in Yorkshire and Lancashire are awaiting a positive announcement from the ORR so that these trains can be ordered and the services delivered on time.

Such a development would also go some way to address the issues raised by the Chancellor when he recently called for a new £7bn high speed railway ‘HS3’ to link Manchester with Leeds. If the trans-Pennine railway is suitably upgraded and new high speed tilting services are approved, then journey times will be cut and those large former textile towns will receive the economic boost they so deserve. They have been poorly served by existing rail services for far too long.

Only this year regional passengers learned that some of the rolling stock they presently use, the relatively modern First TransPennine Express trains, which operate between Manchester and Hull, will be moved south from April 2015 in a “lease agreement”. Nine of these trains will be sent to run on the Chiltern Line through the Home Counties. TransPennine trains already regularly run with unacceptably high overcrowding; this decision is a body blow to local commuters, passengers and local trade bodies trying to attract inward investment based around good local transport services.

The challenge for the region will be to lobby hard for these new modern high speed GNWR rail services so that the successes of the competition along the East Coast Main Line can be mirrored across the Pennines and between Manchester and London. What is there not to like? Conservatives should pledge to deliver more of the above and Labour must acknowledge and welcome the vital role of more private innovation on our railways, particularly in those areas it represents in Parliament.”

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

Date Added: Friday 8th August 2014