John Wylde: Why we’re happy with East Coast

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In the 40 years that I have been familiar with the train services through Northumberland and south-east Scotland, the service levels have improved dramatically.

The picture shows a southbound InterCity express approaching Burnmouth nearly 40 years ago, hauled by a ‘Deltic’ locomotive.

At the time, most, but not all, expresses called at Berwick, but certainly not at Alnmouth or Morpeth.

The timetable pattern was fairly haphazard, however. I recollect that the first fast train southwards from Berwick was at 0810, which took about an hour and a half to reach Newcastle, and London in the early afternoon.

There was one train per day to Birmingham and Plymouth, and four stopping services to Newcastle calling at all the small stations through Northumberland. In addition, one or two local trains to Newcastle started from Alnmouth.

The Deltics had transformed the East Coast main line timetable in the 1960s, with more power than any previous diesel locomotive.

The next major advance was the ‘HST’ – High Speed Train – in the late 1970s, which, with continuing improvements to the track, and 50% more power ‘under the bonnet’ than the Deltics, almost halved the time from Berwick to Newcastle. The first train was still at 0810, but this was followed by a fairly regular two-hourly frequency of trains throughout the day during the 1980s.

With more improvements to the track and electrification in 1991, the frequency gradually increased.

With privatisation in 1996 we were fortunate to have GNER running the services, which was generally recognised as the best operator on British railways, and set the standard which other operators have sought to emulate. Its best asset was its staff, who were all proud to work for it.

GNER’s holding company, Sea Containers Ltd, unfortunately experienced difficulties in 2007, with the result that GNER could not sustain its financial guarantees to the government, so it had reluctantly to ‘hand the keys back’.

Its successor, National Express, was generally regarded as a disaster. Staff morale, and consequently customer service, plummeted. Staff and passengers seemed pleased when it too experienced financial problems in 2009 due to making over-ambitious guarantees of payments to the Government, and similarly had to cease operating the East Coast main line services.

The Government’s operator of last resort, its own Directly Operated Railways, has provided services on the line ever since, and there is a very strong feeling on the part of both staff and passengers that it should continue to do so.

We now have fairly regular hourly services at Berwick from earlier in the morning to later in the evening than ever before (though we still want a later train from Edinburgh on Saturday evenings!).

The Government’s political ideology, however, requires it to re-privatise the operation with a new franchise, to take over in February 2015.

There is such strength of feeling along the whole route that this move is solely for political reasons, and may very well result in damaging changes to services, especially in comparatively sparsely populated areas such as Northumberland, that opposition politicians are seeking guarantees from their leaders that, in the event of a change of political direction following the 2015 General Election, the franchising system will be radically overhauled to allow Directly Operated Railways to take over franchises as they expire.

The present East Coast operator has set such a good example that people just do not want a further change. In other parts of the country, people are becoming nervous of the wholly-privatised franchising system, and view East Coast as a desirable model.

In this way, it is expected that a better level of stability will be achieved, and that passengers will have the benefits of state ownership as demonstrated by the current East Coast operator, without the loss of the competitive nature of the franchising system.

They argue that this is preferable to a return to a wholly nationalised, centralised organisation of the sort with which we had a love-hate relationship, and about whose sandwiches we used to make jokes.

Surveys show that about two-thirds of the respondents are in favour of this approach rather than continuing the present wholly-privatised franchising system. Readers may think that this is all very well, but what can they as individuals do about it?

The obvious thing is to express your views to your MP, who will convey them to the Government. I have previously given you the address of Passenger Focus, (Passenger Focus, Freepost (RRRE-ETTC-LEET), PO Box 4257, Manchester M60 3AR) which is the Government’s own watchdog, and to whom you can make direct representations regarding any aspect of travel by rail.

Governments love statistics. They base their actions largely upon them, because they represent the voters. 
Anybody can become a statistic by making their views known in the right quarter.

John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ ( Priced at £14.95, it is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Berwickshire News office.