By Phil Marsh

Southwestern rail franchise Consultation commences but is it part Con or real Consultation?

Published: 23rd November 2015

Proposal to hive off Island Line a done deal due to lobbying bringing closure closer?

The competition for one of the largest UK rail franchises has commenced with the publication of the Southwestern rail franchise Consultation document.

Background

Stagecoach South Western Trains (SSWT) has operated the South Western franchise in its various guises for near on 20 years since privatisation. After a rocky start with train cancellations made because traincrew were allowed to leave, the franchise, which accounts for around 14% of all UK passenger traffic and 9% of all trains operated.

The new franchise is due to commence in February 2017 but after the Department for Transport (DfT) West Coast Main Line franchise award debacle, it was proposed to extend the SW franchise by two years, but negotiations collapsed along with the Wessex Alliance. This meant that the franchise had to be brought to market with some urgency. The DfT can extend the franchise by up to 7 reporting periods to August 2017 and the DfT is minded to extend this to June 2017.

Train numbers

Today, Stagecoach South Western Trains Ltd (SSWT) operates nearly 1,700 trains a day and manages 185 stations employing around 4,800 staff. The franchise operates passenger services between London Waterloo, south west London Woking, Basingstoke, Guildford, Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth, Reading, Bristol, Exeter, and Weymouth.

The franchise also operates the Island Line on the Isle of Wight. There are six service groups, Windsor Lines, Main Suburban, Portsmouth Main Line, Bournemouth and Weymouth Main Line, West of England and Island Line.

A new fleet of 150 Desiro City Class 707 vehicles will enter service in two years time in addition to another 108 vehicles to be brought into service by next year. This will enable all suburban routes to offer 10-car long services by the end of 2017.

Free off-shore travel?

It is said to carry 1.4million passengers a year but only generates £1million revenue or just 71p per journey representing a mere 0.1% of the franchise revenue. This means that either the estimated revenue is incorrect or the passenger numbers are. Rail.co.uk has checked the passenger numbers and these are correct. So are passengers getting a free ride or are the stated DfT receipts incorrectly understated?

Where’s the money made?

Around 80% of SSWT revenue and 70% of journeys include Waterloo or Vauxhall stations while Clapham Junction provides connections across SWT, Thameslink Southern and London Overground services.

The busiest traffic is between Woking and Surbiton to London while highest revenue generative routes are all to and from London led by Woking and Guildford to London followed by Woking to Guildford and Bracknell to Reading. There is a significant long distance commuting business linking Waterloo with Southampton, Bournemouth, Petersfield and Havant.

The top 25 revenue flows generate about 30% of the franchise revenue dominated by the long distance commuting from Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and Dorset.

Performance and trains

SSWT is achieving 90.3% punctuality measured to October 2015, 0.8% above the national average. Island Line helps to drive up this figure with performance figures running at 99%. And this helps boost the overall franchise average. The franchise is operated mainly by electric trains with just 10% diesel powered services operating on the West of England line to Exeter and Bristol and the Lymington branch.

Again, Island Line gets a special mention discussing the gauge clearances of the line which are unable to accommodate ordinary trains. The fleet is a unique 1938 built ex-London Underground Class 483 rolling stock refurbished in 1989 for use on the Island.

Island Line operates under a separate Lease Agreement with Network Rail (NR) rather than an Access Agreement with responsibility for infrastructure maintenance shared between the operator and NR under this lease which expires in 2019.

But tellingly…

The DfT says; “We will be seeking proposals to determine a sustainable and secure operation, ultimately as a free standing entity, supported by local people and investors including the Isle of Wight Council and other interested parties”. And Rail Minister Claire Perry wrote on 11th September that the new franchise might mean running the local railway as a Community rail scheme.

This suggestion has alarmed local rail users and businesses to the extent that a non-profit company would not have the financial protection of a large franchise and could go bust very quickly. This is hardly a Consultation as the DfT has clearly stated what it wants to happen and there is no optioneering.

What exactly is a Consultation?

Two definitions are:

A process of formally consulting or discussing

A meeting to discuss something or to get advice

These definitions seem to be at odds with the fixed proposal concerning Island Line.

Why?

So why does the DfT want to rid itself of Island Line and hand it over to a Council that has no money due to swingeing funding cuts? The Social Enterprise locally run railway has been tried in two other similar locations - and both failed within a year. The DfT proposal has come as a direct result of the local MP and his Transport Adviser lobbying Rail Minister Claire Perry for the last nine months and is not a Consultation but a clear statement of intent.

The worry is that once ‘set free’ from the franchise system, the line would soon run out of money and close – a complete reversal of rail olicy elsewhere with many rail reopenings.

The Government’s vision…

The Consultation document says that the Government’s long-term plan is to build a stronger, more competitive economy and a fairer society. Rail is crucial to this and has an important role in the UK’s economic recovery and growth. It provides access to markets, employment, leisure and tourism, and the rail sector provides over 200,000 jobs. It will also make an important contribution to rebalancing the economy.

According to recent research by the Rail Delivery Group, the rail industry in Britain contributes £10.1bn in added value to the economy and increases productivity by £11.3bn. The rail network performs certain functions much better than the competing modes of road and air and the Government’s investment strategy plays to its strengths. So why has the DfT singled out Island Line as an experiment and purely basing their decision on an operational profit and loss account not taking into consideration social benefits?

The Secretary of State’s stated franchise objectives

The Secretary of State’s stated franchise objectives in the Consultation document says that “The smooth implementation of major infrastructure and rolling stock projects and the full realisation of the benefits they offer and an increase in the long term value of the railways through investment, cost efficiency and improved management is required.

Another stated objective is to; “Work with the Isle of Wight Council to secure a long-term sustainable solution for the future of the Island Line during the course of the next franchise that will enable it to become a self-sustaining business.” Hardly a Consultation statement!

To know the past is to know the future and why bother with the Consultation?

Any experienced member of railway staff will know and understand why the introduction of new trains and infrastructure causes operational problems. Transferring Island Line into a standalone organisation thus losing the real benefits and support of belonging to a larger franchise as specified in the Consultation is probably the riskiest way forward give that Island Line needs new trains and associated alterations to the infrastructure..

The DfT says that they are now beginning the process of developing what we want for passengers in the new franchise and that over the coming months they will compile the Invitation to Tender (ITT) for the franchise and that responses to this consultation will help the Department inform what we ask for in the franchise, which in turn will form part of the ITT for bidders to consider when submitting proposals to operate the franchise.

How much is there really to consult on?

It appears that the rolling stock requirements have been laid out as well as upgrades to infrastructure such as at Waterloo. The policy decision has already been taken so far as Island Line is concerned. At Waterloo, more and longer platforms will be provided in two years’ time allowing more and longer services to operate so that can’t be changed by a bidder. Bidders will be expected to improve performance and reliability demonstrating how they would deliver improved punctuality. Again, Island Line tops the statistics in performance and reliability so why single it out for change which always brings a performance dip?

Regional differences of opinion?

But, the document suggests that there might be opportunities for more local input to the specification of services in Devon and Cornwall through the creation of a dedicated business unit within the franchise. But so far as Island Line it states:

Ministers have stated their expectation that the next franchisee should develop ideas to turn the Island Line into a separate self-sustaining business during the life of the franchise. The Isle of Wight Council will lead this initiative, working with the new franchisee and potential third party investors. Bidders will be required to work with all relevant stakeholders to support this aim. Again, not a consultation statement!

The document also asks: What factors do you consider should be taken into account in assessment of options for the Island Line? Given there is only one option offered, it’s a bit of a closed question! Could this be because of the ongoing lobbying as reported at:

http://www.rail.co.uk/rail-news/2015/island-line-closure-fears/

Rail.co.uk’s unanswered questions

We asked the local MP some questions:

Policy

Who devises the MP’s transport policy so far as the railways are concerned?

At the May 2014 meeting with SSWT it was revealed that Stagecoach preferred option would be to close the line. Why was this not made public until well over a year later?

At the February 2015 meeting, Network Rail expressed closure as a serious option, why was this not made public at the time?

Community interest Company/Social enterprise Company

Who first came up with the idea of running Island Line as a CIC/SeC

When was this idea first put to Government? And by who?

Why does Claire Perry support the idea when a week before Patrick McLoughlin knew nothing about it? (Rail.co.uk asked him).

How would a CIC/SeC reduce costs given fixed costs make up around 80% of the total. Volunteers can only carry out non safety-critical duties.

What differences in Regulation would you envisage if the line is operated as a standalone social enterprise/Community Interest Company?

Who would the Parties be in a Track Access Agreement?

Would the Network Code apply if operated as a Social Enterprise/Community Interest Company outside the franchise system?

Whose idea was it to compare Shanklin Theatre and Waterside Pool to running a railway? July 24. “To compare running a Theatre to running a railway is nonsense” – Anthony Wood of Shanklin Theatre. How would you respond to that comment?

Ealing Community Transport

This of course would not be the first such railway to be run by a Social enterprise Company - Ealing Community Transport bought Dartmoor and Weardale Railways from PWC administators and the operations didn’t last. (2004+2006). And they had their own successful locomotive works in Wakefield.

Isle of Wight Steam Railway involvement

The MP’s office has been saying that the IOWSR can be given Island Line to operate. Why was this statement made before any contact with the preserved railway who told rail.co.uk “We see the only solution to give Island Line a future is to stay in the franchise. What are your thoughts on this statement?

Running steam to Ryde on a daily basis. Have you considered the logistics?

Track wear and tear, lineside fires, cost, crews, availability and carriages.

What concerns do you think ORR and RSSB might have if volunteers are used to operate the line in safety critical positions? IOWSR has around 25 paid staff supervising 350 volunteers.

Island Line runs a year-round service 17 hours a day while the IOWSR’s advertised public services on 192 days in 2015 – nowhere near the 364 days Island Line runs.

There is not a single preserved UK railway that runs daily services only using volunteer staff. Why would Island Line be different?

Renaissance Trains report?

Who commissioned the Renaissance Trains report? And why?

Did the team contact the IOWSR as part of the due diligence in researching the report?

The loop is already at Ryde St. Johns.

Triangle is not needed at Smallbrook.

Solar Panels on lineside is a huge no no due to the safe cess policy.

Why would IOWSR volunteers want to operate a main line railway? Their incentive and loyalty is to IOWSR – PHD Study underway.

They would also need training from scratch as with NYMR and Chinnor crews.

Local radio August 21. Franchise not serving IOW well

Mr Finney claimed that Mr Turner has seen for some time that the existence of the Island Line under its existing regime for 14 years has not served the Island well. But given the service has remained unchanged in this time, what is wrong has not been explained. In the same interview, Mr Finney likened the Cardiff Valleys network to Island Line – but the two are incomparable in ridership, trains operated and route mileage.

He also suggested that the 25 seat passenger capacity Parry People Mover operating on 800 metres of track between Stourbridge Junction and Stourbridge Town could be appropriate for Island Line.

None of these questions have been answered by IOW MP Andrew Turner despite being hand delivered and emailed.

How to respond to the DfT Consultation

The deadline for responses is 9th February 2016 and the full document can be found at: www.gov.uk/government/publications?keywords=&publication_filter_option=co nsultations&departments%5B%5D=department-for-transport

If you have questions about this consultation please contact:

South Western Consultation Co-ordinator 4/15 Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road London SW1P 4DR 0300 330 3000 (switchboard)

You can e-mail consultation responses or questions o: SouthWesternFranchise2016@railexecutive.gsi.gov.uk

or, write to: South Western Consultation Co-ordinator Department for Transport 4/15 Great Minster House 33 Horseferry Road London SW1P 4DR 0300 330 3000 (switchboard)

Respondees should state whether they are responding as an individual or representing the views of an organisation.

How to find out more:

There will be several opportunities to meet the Consultation team. Events will be held on: 24th November 2015 at Guildford

1st December 2015 at Basingstoke

8th December 2015 at Salisbury

9th December 2015 at Portsmouth

15th December 2015 Ryde Yelf’s Hotel, Isle of Wight

5th January 2016 London

To attend these email SouthWesternFranchise2016@railexecutive.gsi.gov.uk for an invitation.

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