Changes planned to rail franchises

A consultation by the Department for Transport on future plans for the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises is due to close today, with rail union RMT describing the plans as "disgraceful".

RMT said it would deliver nearly 5,000 postcards to the DfT this morning, collected from members of the public at 50 consultation events held across the region.

The government's special purpose vehicle Rail North has held five public consultation events since June on the consultation.

A document summarising the stakeholder views is expected to be published in December 2014.

The current franchises are operated by First and Keolis Transpennine, trading as First TransPennine Express, and Northern Rail, a joint venture between Serco Group and Abellio. Northern operates around 2,550 trains every weekday, while TPE operates 335.

The next TPE and Northern franchises are due to commence in February 2016. The consultation seeks views on specification matters that will be provided to shortlisted bidders.

The proposals include increasing fares in areas where fares were "significantly below" what is found elsewhere, "to help pay for better services", and enabling efficiencies in working practices, such as reducing the opening hours of lightly-used ticket offices and promoting new ticketing technologies.

Specifics plans for the TPE service include:

  • Reducing calls to certain stations in off-peak hours including Stalybridge and Garforth
  • Increasing connectivity between Manchester and Leeds
  • Balancing provision of electric trains over electrified infrastructure, and diesel trains for destinations not on electrified network

For Northern Rail, the plans are more extensive due to the scale of the service, and include:

  • Increasing service frequency in peak and/or off-peak where demand merits it
  • Reducing service frequency in peak and/or off-peak where demand is low and current service represents poor value for subsidy needed
  • Reducing number of stops at stations used by few people to accelerate the service for passengers passing through
  • Adjusting times of first and/or last services where this better matches the pattern of demand
  • Improving weekend services, including potential new Saturday or Sunday services, where the potential demand justifies it
  • Reducing weekend services where current service represents poor value for the subsidy needed
  • Adjusting service levels on seasonal basis where this better matches pattern of demand

Last week, the government and Northern Rail confirmed that it was introducing changes to off-peak fares in the region, in what RMT described as "a kick in the teeth for the travelling public and a taste of what's to come under the new Northern and TransPennine Express franchises which are currently out to public consultation."

From 8 September off-peak tickets can no longer be used during weekday evening peak times on Northern Rail services.

Mick Cash, acting general secretary at RMT, said: "It is disgraceful that plans that will whack up fares, axe jobs and services and reduce both the Northern and TransPennine franchises to an unsafe, money-making racket, are being bulldozed through under cover of a wholly bogus consultation. If RMT officials and activists hadn't organised almost 50 events, and a major press campaign, the vast majority of people would have known nothing of this huge rail carve-up.

"The plans are already afoot before the consultation has even ended, the axing of off-peak fares on Northern is a savage kick in the teeth for people already struggling with the burden of low pay and austerity and the fact that it has been cooked up by the Department for Transport in collusion with the privatisation pirates from Northern Rail is a warning of what's to come."

A DfT spokesman said: "We have been very clear since the beginning of this consultation that we are seeking people's views on these issues. This will help us decide the best way forward for these franchises as we forge ahead with the £1bn investment planned for the northern rail network. No decisions will be made without taking into account the views of local people."

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Some potentially very positive things in the new franchises and a catalyst for investment. Many fares are very low and the subsidy is too large… More revenue = better business case for existing and new services = more jobs – go figure RMT!

By Observer

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