by Phil Marsh

East Coast Trains removes barriers to travel at Kings Cross as Network Rail apologises for poor performance

Published: 1st October 2013

Part-time season tickets and early morning cheap fares proposed, new ideas?

Network Rail (NR) has offered an apology to passengers using its East Coast route from Kings Cross to the north. This was deemed to be required after many infrastructure failures causing cancellations and delaying trains over the last summer.

Performance figures dipped to 83.4% on time services on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) from August to September after issues with the overhead wires at three locations. The Rail Regulator has demanded a performance record of 92% from NR by the end of March 2014, or it has threatened to fine it up to £75million.

The most recent punctuality figures are the lowest of all long distance routes and the density of trains now means that any delays are harder to recover from that a decade ago. But, NR blames the electrification of the ECML north of Peterborough 30 years ago ‘being done on the cheap’ by British Railways. Many would suggest that Network Rail has had a decade to recover the situation and carry out repairs or upgrades, but the case is that money has to be spent.

Long distance train operators have a more demanding task to achieve punctuality targets as by definition, more disruption is likely the longer a train runs. Delays range from trespass, cable theft, suicides, landslips as well as signal and points failures. The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) singled out problems with drainage across the system, poor maintenance planning and a failure from the company to understand exactly what they own and exactly what state it's in.

Taxpayers’ battle

Despite East Coast Trains (ECT) and NR both being ‘owned’ by taxpayers, there is a bit of a battle going on over reliability as the Government launches the ECT franchising competition. NR has said that it will spend a total of nearly £250million rectifying the problems in the next few years. The franchise has been operated by GNER and National Express, both of whom lost money on the operation. The Department for Transport (DfT) has been instructed by the Government to return ECT to the private sector before the next election in May 2015.

But passengers seem to like the long distance East Coast services, whoever runs them as they give a good rating in the statutory satisfaction ratings so will they be happy with a NR apology? Whatever the answer, they will be more pleased with the decision that has been taken by ECT management to stop using automatic ticket barriers at Kings Cross.

These were specified by the DfT as required for revenue protection but it seems ECT suggest that they do not even cover their costs despite the installation costs being paid for by NR, owners of the station as part of the station upgrade.

They tweeted

This has emerged via twitter when ECT Chairman Michael Holden (@holdmch) tweeted ‘We have found thru experience insufficient income at risk to justify full time operation’. In a follow-up tweet he explained ‘These things aren't always clear cut. We have improved on-train rev protection since then & other TOCs aren't keen on gates’.

Ticketing trials

The Transport minister Norman Baker has announced at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, a new ticket initiative to start next year on the C2C franchise. This will allow part time commuters to buy part-time season tickets. The fine detail has not yet been revealed but the Minister told a national newspaper that “Season tickets were set at a time when commuters wore pinstripes worked from 9-5 and always took the same train. The world has moved on and ticketing has to move on with it.”

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) said that it welcomed “further government investment” in smart ticketing, but did not address the issue of part-time season tickets directly. An ATOC spokesman said: “Smart cards and other types of electronic ticketing encourage passengers to travel by train by making it easier for them to buy tickets and use the network.

Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith welcomed the plans, which his organisation has long called for. He said: “This is good news for the 59% of commuters whose working hours don’t fit into the Monday to Friday pattern. We have long said that ticketing options need to reflect changing working patterns – and it is a good opportunity to put smarter ticketing to the test in bringing benefits to passengers.”

Ticket numbers

Under 60% of commuters, it is suggested by the rail industry, travel five days a week with under six million men and 2 million women working part time reflecting a change in employment practises with more people working part time.

The Transport Minister has also said that he will loom at rewarding passengers who avoid the busiest parts of the peak hours. Cheaper tickets have been suggested if passengers travel before 7am for example. This of course is nothing new as British Railways had what was called ‘Workmen’s Tickets’ in the 1960s for just such travel.

The DfT says it will soon be publishing a review of fares and ticketing but has abandoned plans for a super peak fare applicable to the busiest times and trains.

The rail industry will be wondering what will be forced onto them by the DfT as ticket changes are complicated to introduce and complex for passengers to understand. History suggests that when the Government starts to meddle with fares and ticketing structures, it does not improve matters and revenue can suffer. Time will tell….

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