Tom Richmond: Why passengers should be in the driving seat for railways’ future

What is the way forward for rail services 50 years after the lines were closed as part of the Beeching cuts? As the Government presses ahead with HS2 
high-speed rail, Tom Richmond looks at the options for this region’s two franchises.

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THOSE train travellers jostling in the morning mist and mizzle for a more advantageous position on the crowded platform of Guiseley Station so they have a better chance of finding some standing room on the already packed rush-hour train into Leeds probably do not realise their good fortune.

There would not be an overcrowding problem on this Northern Rail-operated service if Dr Richard Beeching’s advice had been accepted 50 years ago. There would be no trains at all on the Wharfedale Line from Leeds to Guiseley and all stations to Ilkley, in the foothills of the Yorkshire Dales.

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Thankfully, this route was spared. Others, including a spur to Otley, were not. Thirteen local lines were forgone in a cost-cutting exercise that has become even more unfathomable – and costly to the county’s economy – with the passage of time.

One of the many telegrams that Huddersfield-born Harold Wilson received on his very first day as Prime Minister in October 1964 was a missive from Mr Albert Gibson, clerk of Hornsea Council, appealing for the line from Hull to the North Sea resort, and nearby Withernsea, to be saved.

It was too late. The railways were losing £140m a year at the time and the last train on the Hull and Holderness Line stopped three days after the pipe-smoking Mr Wilson walked into Downing Street.

Yet the watershed decisions of the early 1960s explain why this region’s railways are buckling under the pressure created by record passenger numbers which were simply not envisaged when Dr Beeching, the British Railways Board chairman, and Harold Macmillan’s transport Minister Ernest Marples were reaching one of the most short-sighted decisions ever undertaken in British social history.

In the very same month that the first high-speed Bullet trains were launched in Japan, further evidence that rail policy in this country has always belonged to a bygone age, they did not understand the right for Britons to have an adequate public transport service that met the needs of the nation. To them, passengers were just an irritating inconvenience.

It is the same today as the Government decides the future of the two Yorkshire rail franchises which are responsible for services across the region. The money men behind Britain’s train operating companies, 75 per cent of which are foreign-owned thanks to the Major government’s privatisation programme of the 1990s, do not always appear to be sufficiently interested in the quality of the service they offer. The financial bottom line is all that appears to matter to those ‘fat cats’ who receive £669m a year in subsidies to provide a public service.

Yet railways matter. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was proud to tell Parliament last Thursday that a record 1.6 billion journeys were undertaken last year. And demand will only grow – Chancellor George Osborne is already advocating a high-speed line from Leeds to Manchester.

However, the three carriage trains which run along this Trans-Pennine Express route from Scarborough, York, Hull, Leeds and Huddersfield to the great destinations of the North West are hopelessly inadequate when compared to the length and frequency of commuter services to and from London. They can’t cope now, never mind if Mr Osborne’s vision of a northern economic powerhouse comes to pass.

It’s not just the rush-hour – Lord Haskins of Skidby, the former Northern Foods supremo, says passengers are packed like sardines on Sunday services from Leeds to Hull where he is overseeing the East Yorkshire city’s economic revival. “The infrastructure is appalling,” he said recently. “A lot of these non-London train franchises have been neglected and not taken seriously. You can’t get a seat.” At least there’s a train – unlike the line from Beverley to York, another nonsensical victim of Beeching’s botch.

This is the backdrop to the renegotiation of the Northern Rail and TransPennine Express franchises, and why the Department for Transport needs to embark upon a new direction of travel.

Let’s be realistic. With the Prime Minister in Leeds today to back the latest report into the merit of the £40bn-plus HS2 high-speed line from London to the North, and the Chancellor endorsing a HS3 route traversing the Pennines, the odds are against the Beverley to York and Skipton to Colne lines reopening despite the enthusiastic efforts of campaigners. Engineering and financial restraints mean it is wrong to expect a single section of track on the Wharfedale Line near Guiseley to be widened to increase the frequency of these services.

But this should not preclude the Department for Transport from attempting to put passengers in the driving seat, despite a spokesman pointing out rather ominously to this correspondent: “Subsidy to northern operators has been high and average fares have remained far lower than in other parts of the country.”

Try telling that to passengers struggling move on trains from Guiseley to Leeds as they anticipate further above-inflation fare rises in the new year (in return for a piece of standing room).

If I was the Transport Secretary assessing the franchise bids, this is what I would do.

1. Leadership. The winning bids need to be headed by visionaries. The GNER service from Yorkshire to London was the envy of the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s when run by Christopher Garnett, who was later recruited by the Olympic Delivery Authority. The Grand Central Railway would not have become a success without the leadership of the late Tom Clift who had been steeped in the railways for 40 years.

Faceless suits who manage by the text book should be a non-starter; Ministers should be looking for the railway industry’s equivalent of Welcome to Yorkshire supremo Gary Verity, who once bought drinks for passengers on a breathless overcrowded train with no air conditioning in high summer because he was embarrassed by the negative impression being given of God’s own county. Franchises need inspirational motivators who realise that their front line staff are their greatest asset – and value them accordingly.

2. Timetable for action. Bidders need to set out the priorities for their first 100 days, six months and year. This is the time to make a positive impression. Can, for example, more people be persuaded to travel at night and at off-peak times? There also needs to be transparency over fares to avoid a repeat of last month’s kick in the teeth to travellers when Northern Rail’s current crop of seemingly ‘couldn’t care less’ senior managers – the very people who failed to plan properly for the Tour de France weekend – said off-peak train tickets purchased after 9.30am would no longer be valid in the evening rush hour.

3. Rolling stock. Firms need to set out a timetable for acquiring and financing new carriages. This is the only way forward if more passengers are to travel by train – and in a tolerable level of comfort. It is even more critical on Northern Rail services where passengers endure ageing, bone-rattling Pacer diesel trains – described unflatteringly as “buses on rails” – which are nearly 30 years old. Even though they will be illegal by 2020 because they do not conform to laws on disabled access, there’s talk of them staying in service. Londoners would not tolerate this. Why should Yorkshire?

4. Scrutiny and remuneration. Just like shareholders of PLC companies can vote against the pay packages offered to the board of directors, the same should apply to train operating companies – monthly and annual season ticket-holders should be given the right to veto bonuses. Can pay and performance be linked to a train firm’s reliability and punctuality? Managers committed to public service should not be afraid of this.

5. The vision. As well as immediate improvements, the successful franchisee needs to set out their ‘railway for the future’. Controversies over HS2 must not stand in the way of the need to overhaul local services.

It will not be easy – it’s taken 10 years to advance plans to build two new stations at Apperley Bridge and Kirkstall Forge on the line into Leeds – but it must be done if the county’s railways are to get back on track following Dr Beeching’s short-sightedness and five subsequent decades of chronic under-investment by successive governments who thought that train services did not matter outside London.

They do. Just ask all those who pay to stand on an antiquated train each day.