John Wylde: too early to write off HS2

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There are mischievous people about who like to spread disinformation for the sake of causing trouble. There was an example in The Berwick Advertiser three weeks ago, when opponents of HS2 stated as a matter of fact that if this new high speed line is built, then services at Berwick will be worsened.

In a letter published the following week, a correspondent strongly refuted this by pointing out quite rightly that there is no way that such an effect could be known at this stage, and to make such a suggestion is mere surmise intended to influence local opinion in support of their cause.

HS2 is not a ‘stand-alone’ proposal for an isolated railway, but is intended to be integrated with the existing network to benefit everybody. It is important to remember, however, that it is not due for completion until 2032, unless the work can be speeded up, and how to do this is being investigated.

Long before there is any question of HS2 having an effect on services at Berwick there are two other events which might do so. First, there is the East Coast re-franchising next year, and then there is the introduction of new trains in four or five years’ time.

Any changes to the actual services as a result of re-franchising will almost certainly be quite minor, as the ‘paths’ in which the trains run are allocated by Network Rail.

Major timetable revisions occur periodically, but franchises are let on the basis that the new operator will adhere to the Department for Transport’s guidelines. Lately these are giving the operators more flexibility to decide on services than formerly, but the next major revision currently being discussed is in connection with the new trains due to take place towards the end of this decade.

It is reported that one of the service pattern options being proposed does make it look as though Berwick may suffer some reduction is frequency of services unless the guardians of our interests keep their eye on the ball. Our elected representatives should be continually reminded of our wishes in this matter.

The main changes due to re-franchising will be matters such as service quality in the form of operational performance, train and station presentation, passenger information, and ticketing.

The correspondent mentioned above pointed out that the various groups on the East Coast shortlist for the next franchise – two Scottish and one French – have varied reputations for customer service. He cited particularly the practice of improving the capacity of trains by reducing the amount of space allocated to each customer. This is encouraged by the Department for Transport, and is something else which we could ask our elected representatives to follow up, and we could take up ourselves with Passenger Focus, FREEPOST (RRRE-ETTC-LEET), PoBox 4257, Manchester M60 3AR.

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. They were proud to work for GNER. National Express neglected it, and morale plummeted. 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 to the customers.

When we set off from Berwick by train we are going somewhere specific, so we need to know that the railway system in general is as good as we want it to be. It is encouraging that the years of neglect through much of the last century are being made good, and Network Rail’s budget for development is continually growing.

One thing which the new operator could do to help us is to provide information about bus services to and from railway stations. 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, especially when they are away from home.

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 ‘on line’ so that they can reduce the opening hours of booking offices as a first step to closing them altogether. Perhaps this is something else to take up with Passenger Focus.

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 Advertiser readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Berwick Advertiser office.