Not everyone can get online to get off line

Morpeth Railway Station
Morpeth Railway Station

The car park and the now-disused bus stop at Morpeth station were constructed c1978 as part of an agreement between British Rail and Northumberland County Council to increase the frequency of the occasional services calling at Morpeth to become hourly, at the expense of the local services north of Morpeth, which were reduced to just the one commuter service morning and evening, which still runs, calling at all stations to Chathill.

Part of this agreement was that the county council would ‘persuade’ the bus operator (United) to run services linking residential areas around the town to the railway station, hence the bus stop.

However, United had a vested interest in carrying people all the way to Newcastle, so they made sure that the bus connections to the station just did not work, and they were soon withdrawn.

When the National Bus Company was formed in 1969, its creator, Barbara Castle, did not require the bus company to co-operate with British Rail, and to co-ordinate its services with rail services. We thus had the ridiculous situation that the railways and the buses were both state owned, but their respective operators were not obliged to talk to each other.

Part of British Rail’s aspiration was to re-instate services to Ashington, and continue them across Newcastle to Consett. But the proposal was rejected. Fortunately there are people who have worked for years to revive this idea, or something like it, and although the line to Consett has gone with little hope of revival, it is now beginning to look as though south-east Northumberland may one day have a passenger railway again.

The Government are rushing through as many new franchise agreements as possible before the election. In the case of the East Coast main line, this is clearly because of political dogma rather than because there is anything the matter with the present operator’s performance, or because it has simply run out of time. They fear that, in the event of a change of political balance after the election, the incoming government might be inclined to leave East Coast in the hands of the present, publicly-owned, operator.

There is very strong feeling that this would actually be desirable, especially in the North East.

When a change of franchise occurs, it is not the actual services which change much. The things that will alter are customer service details such as refreshment services on trains and at the stations, the availability and pricing of car parking, the availability and pricing of non-regulated fares in the form of advance tickets, and information.

One very desirable service which any franchisee could provide is information about bus services. Tickets can now be issued to many stations ‘plus bus’, but passengers are left to find out for themselves what bus services are available at their destination station.

Transport Direct is the Government’s own website which can tell you everything in this respect, but some people, especially the elderly, do not have access to a computer.

A friendly, helpful, knowledgeable booking clerk is so much better than a machine, which sometimes just doesn’t work! What a pity, then, that the train operators are desperate to persuade us to buy our tickets online so that they can reduce the opening hours of booking offices as a first step towards closing them altogether.

One of the most important aspects of service quality is investment in the work-force. GNER paid a lot of attention to this, and staff morale was high. Railway staff on this line were extremely pleased when East Coast took over, but now they are highly nervous again at the prospect of the company being returned to the private sector. A happy, confident workforce is going to deliver the best service s.

If you have views on any aspect of travelling by train, the Government’s watchdog is Passenger Focus, FREEPOST (RRRE-ETTC-LEET), PoBox 4257, Manchester M60 3AR. If enough people drop them a line, some of the things which are getting worse might start getting better again.