The North East needs a fast rail line, and it needs it now

Tony Lodge, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, argues that the region deserves a fast rail line and shouldn't have to wait for HS2

HS2
HS2

A new era on the railways is in prospect if new non-stop express trains between London and Newcastle get the green light.

Plans for the fastest ever long distance non-stop rail service between London King’s Cross and Newcastle, using new tilting trains, will slash city to city journey times from an average of two hours and fifty minutes to just under two and a half hours.

Twenty years since railway privatisation, there is still no on-track competition against the main rail franchise holder, East Coast, in the provision of direct fast services between Newcastle and King’s Cross on the East Coast Main Line.

This could change if the Government approves plans for new privately funded 140mph capable services from 2017.

Where this kind of ‘open access’ rail competition and choice has been allowed elsewhere on the line fares have remained low, satisfaction high and more passengers have used the railway.

Sunderland, Hartlepool and Teesside have all benefited from ‘open access’ as they are now linked to London with fast Grand Central high speed train services.

The ambition by the early rail pioneers to connect London and the North East with fast trains led to the famous ‘Race for the North’ in the 1890s which led to the legendary rivalry between the LMS and LNER railway companies in the 1920s and 30s, both seeking to deliver the fastest connections.

While the LNER delivered the crack Silver Jubilee services between King’s Cross and Newcastle the LMS fought back with their streamlined Coronation Scot service, delivered between Euston and Glasgow in 1937.

Alliance’s proposed new Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) services will require a £300m private investment and plan to operate every hour throughout the day between 6am and 7pm with later starting services at weekends. GNER has already identified spare capacity on the line to host the new services as well as finding suitable platform space at Newcastle.

GNER will be able to deliver the two hour and 29 minute journey time because it will operate 140mph trains, although initially they will be limited to 125mph.

Importantly, these trains will be capable of tilting which allows them to travel safely and comfortably at higher speeds around curves.

If the route is further upgraded to 140 mph then ever shorter journey times could be achieved.

The train will go on to Edinburgh and will make that journey in just one hour and 11 minutes, down from the one hour 22 minutes today.

Speeds of up to 140mph may be possible from 2020 when a new signaling system is in place between London and Yorkshire.

The company plans trains with nine passenger carriages, offering around 500 seats in various classes of travel. There will also be new railway jobs in Newcastle as a third of the train crews will be based there and there will be depot staff required too. Importantly this service can effectively deliver HS2’s projected journey times and anticipated economic benefits for Newcastle 15 years early.

By competing with the line’s franchise holder, East Coast, the new GNER services can repeat the positive results from Sunderland, Hartlepool and Teesside where private open access operator Grand Central has been allowed and encouraged to compete and deliver new rail services to London, alongside the franchise.

Until Grand Central started these areas had no direct rail services with the capital. The local Chambers of Commerce have said, “The choice of direct links to London has helped to bolster the image of the North East generally, but links to Sunderland in particular have helped businesses develop the case to bring investment to the area. 

“The Grand Central London link had a critical part to play in this by putting Sunderland ‘on the map’ and giving people a number of options for travel. 

There is also some evidence to suggest that the wider range of travel options encouraged people to travel at different times which had a knock on effect for the bars, restaurants and hotels.  Again, it would be difficult to attribute it all to the rail service but it is a big factor.”

Detailed research last year by the Centre for Policy Studies showed that where rail competition is delivered it leads to more journeys, higher revenues for the train companies, lower fares, more routes served and happier passengers.

The research (since 2009) showed that passenger journeys increased by 42% at those stations which enjoy rail competition, compared with 27% for those without competition; revenue increased by 57% where competition occurs compared to 48% for those stations without competition; average fares increased by only 11% on those stations with competition, compared to 17% at those stations without competition and there is no threat to the viability of the franchise. In the case of East Coast its premium to Government is rising.

In addition, in the official rankings of passenger satisfaction of the 31 main train companies, those which came first and second were those which are running “open access” competitive services against the franchise.

GNER is also offering flexible ticketing and 50% refunds for those who are unable to find a seat. These private rail companies are also improving railway infrastructure; at Hartlepool Grand Central is planning to bring a disused platform back into use and are helping to rebuild a derelict Grade 2 listed station in Yorkshire.

This rail competition, with air as well as rail; the proposed service will start in Edinburgh and then call at Newcastle before running non-stop to London, can deliver improved accessibility and will increase both business interest in the North East and also the tourism attraction of the whole of the region as many international visitors first arrive in London. Faster and cheaper rail links will help deliver more tourists to Tyneside and the wider area.

But the Office of Rail Regulation remains stubborn as regards allowing such new non-franchised services from getting the green light, despite support from Government for open access.

There remains an old fashioned approach that such innovation on the railways just causes complications.

This view is, of course, wrong and draconian and must be changed. North East MPs, councils and business groups should get behind this proposed new service so as to secure faster and better connectivity with London and more inward investment.

Such a fast new service to Newcastle will stand out to the London and Edinburgh business community in the same way proposed new fast rail services from London Paddington will change the attraction of Cardiff and South Wales.

Politicians have regularly voiced their desire for more rail competition but this will only work and become popular if rail can put up a sound case for competition on time, cost and passenger comfort. Up until now, between London and Newcastle, this has been lacking.

It is over 20 years since rail privatisation was supposed to deliver more competition and faster and more niche services to suit passenger demand.

Today new privately funded high speed services are being proposed and can be delivered. It’s working for Sunderland, Hartlepool and Teesside so it can certainly work for Newcastle. I’m sure the great railway pioneers would have approved.

  • Tony Lodge is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and author of Rail’s Second Chance – putting competition back on track, published by the CPS.

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