Rail group fighting to retain services

morpeth train station. Southbound platform, East Coast train.
morpeth train station. Southbound platform, East Coast train.

RAIL campaigners in Northumberland are acting early to get the best deal for the county in the new East Coast franchise.

The South East Northumberland Rail User Group (SENRUG) has already sent a detailed document to the Department for Transport setting out the services it expects from any future operator of the route between Edinburgh and London.

The Government has announced a shortlist of bidders to take on the franchise next year, with East Coast Trains (First Group), Keolis/Eurostar East Coast and Inter City Railways (Stagecoach transport Holdings and Virgin Holdings) all passing the Pre-Qualification Evaluation stage assessing their financial strength, legal, operational and safety experience.

SENRUG says that as a minimum current services must be retained, including a train from Morpeth that reaches London by 9.40am and one returning from the capital at 6.30pm, which were introduced in 2011 to give an extra two hours in London.

Chairman Dennis Fancett said: “There was a major improvement to the timetable in 2011 when we got extra morning and evening trains for Morpeth. We campaigned heavily for that, but none of those improvements are currently protected in the franchise.

“The very first thing we want is that those additional services are retained.”

Mr Fancett said the campaign group is also seeking the introduction of inter-city off-peak services from Morpeth to enable passengers to take advantage of cheap ticket deals.

“I think we now have a reasonable peak hour service in the morning and evening rush hour, but we don’t have any off-peak services,” he said.

“The significance of off-peak is that they are the ones with cheap tickets on, rather than the peak hour services, which are the busiest and there is not going to be a discount for. I think that is reasonable and I wouldn’t challenge it, but we believe there should be some off-peak services available,

“We would like to see one service south from Morpeth at about 9.30am or 10am, getting to London at lunchtime, and an after morning peak departure from London, which would get to Morpeth at lunchtime.”

The campaigners are also seeking more connections between intercity stations at Morpeth, Alnmouth, Berwick and Dunbar in Scotland, and additional services on Sundays.

Mr Fancett said: “Whoever wins the franchise, we would want to work with them constructively so it would be counter-productive to name a preferred company.

“We would prefer the company which shows the best commitment to Northumberland. We would like to hear what each of the different companies would deliver for the county.”

The Government is expected to issue an Invitation to Tender for the franchise at the end of February.