It is nearly 20 years since the railways were privatised and there is a common but mistaken belief that all the improvements to the services which have occurred since then have been due to privatisation.
In fact, British Rail was well on the way to transforming its InterCity services so that the new privatised operators simply ‘rode the surf’ of the tide of improvements which was already happening.
This is not to discredit them for the improvements which they have made, but changes on the railway tend not to happen too quickly.
The original purpose was that the private operators would bring lots of new ideas to the services which they provided and certainly there were some commercial initiatives which arose as a result.
They very soon found, however, that they were given much less latitude by the government than they expected.
Governments love controlling things and the railways have been a example of this.
In the case of the East Coast Main Line, it has been interesting to see how the franchise-holders have been required to provide some services as a condition of their tenure, such as the requirement to run at least one train from Edinburgh to London in less than four hours and to set the approximate times of the first and last trains to and from London.
In the late 1970s, the first express train south from Berwick was at 0810 and this took nearly an hour-and-a-half to reach Newcastle and did not arrive in London until the early afternoon. The time of the first train did not alter when the InterCity 125 high-speed trains (HSTs) appeared in 1978, but the time taken for the journeys was dramatically reduced and the frequency increased. We had a fast train every two hours.
Since then, the frequency has steadily improved so that now our fast trains are almost hourly, largely due to the initiative of the current operator, the government’s own operator of last resort, Directly Operated Railways, which took over when National Express had to admit defeat in 2009, having been over-ambitious in its financial bid for the franchise.
There is concern, however, that the new franchise holder to take over in February 2015 will have the opportunity to reduce the number of calls at stations in Northumberland.
This is a sparsely-populated area compared with places further south, and no doubt the figures look pathetic when viewed from a desk in London.
If you have concerns about this, express them to your MP, who will pass them on to the government. I have previously mentioned the government’s own watchdog Passenger Focus, FREEPOST (RRRE-ETTC-LEET), PO Box 4257, Manchester M60 3AR, to whom you can make representations on any aspect of rail travel.
As well as the East Coast Main Line, we have services to Birmingham and the south-west. We had one train per day, and this route was in the process of being developed at privatisation. Virgin Trains, who had the Cross-Country franchise initially, really improved the frequency as part of their ‘Operation Princess’ in 2001, as part of which they added ‘for Alnwick’ to the Alnmouth name, and made some encouraging improvements at Morpeth.
Unfortunately, when Arriva just beat them to the new franchise in 2007, Virgin’s initiatives were not continued, Arriva making a policy decision to do nothing that was not required under their franchise terms, which now runs until 2019. Arriva is now a division of Deutsch Bahn (German Railways) as is the Tyne & Wear Metro and various other operators in Britain.
Services at Morpeth are mainly provided by Northern Rail and the frequency of these local trains was inherited from British Rail, which had made an agreement with the County Council to provide a car park and bus terminal at Morpeth station. The bus terminal is not used because it is obviously in the bus operator’s interest to carry Morpeth people directly to Newcastle rather than just to the station.
At Berwick, on the other hand, provision has been made for buses to come to the station, including a rail-link bus service to the central Borders. Unfortunately, we have not yet got as far as the continentals in co-ordinating our bus services with the trains, but bringing them to the station is a step in the right direction.
John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-Wisp? (www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Herald office.