First, an abject apology for misleading you last month by saying that the East Coast franchise will be taken over by Stagecoach and Virgin Trains on February 1. The correct date is March 1.
Virgin Trains has only a 10% stake in East Coast, but the trains will be branded Virgin. The brand is noted for making the most of publicity for its activities, so we shall be left in no doubt about the identity of the new operator.
GNER, the first privatised operator on the East Coast line in 1996, trained its staff to be fairly formal. Although National Express effectively destroyed staff morale almost overnight when it took over in 2007 and during its brief tenure until 2009, the GNER training survived in dilute form and is still discernible now. Observation suggests that Virgin encourages its staff to be friendly verging on matey.
However, all is not sweetness and light. No doubt encouraged by the government, the new franchisees are rumoured to be planning to run more trains non-stop between Edinburgh and Newcastle, with the implication that therefore fewer will call at the lesser stations such as Berwick and Alnmouth.
The number of East Coast trains which stop at Dunbar and Morpeth now is so few that any reduction in service at those stations would effectively amount to total withdrawal of service, so we will charitably assume for the moment that this will not happen.
This is pure speculation on my part, but my guess is that when they have the opportunity to make their planned changes, the main East Coast service pattern at Berwick and Alnmouth will take the form of balancing with the Cross Country services at those stations, which is generally irregular, but at times discernibly two-hourly.
The effect of this would be to revert to the two-hourly service pattern which was developed by British Rail 30 years ago, and destroy the improvements which have gradually been made since, and which now give us an almost regular hourly frequency at Berwick and a steadily improving frequency at Alnmouth.
It may seem to the number-crunchers in London that Berwick and Alnmouth are little-used stations, and so they may be in comparison with the stations used by the civil servants in their leafy home localities around London, but they are strategically important to north Northumberland and the Scottish Borders.
We may just have a little time – but only a little – to voice our opinions to Stagecoach and Virgin Trains, and to the candidates hoping to be our new MP. Regrettably, Passenger Focus, which purports to listen to passengers’ views and represent them to the operators, seems to be only concerned with failures and delays in the existing services rather than having any interest in permanent reductions in service arising from changes in service patterns. This makes our elected representatives all the more important, because the operators certainly listen to them.
Fifty years ago the railway network was in the process of being heavily pruned. The process took a decade, which is undue haste when you are dealing with something the size of the British railway system. Now the procedure is going the other way, with stations, lines and services rapidly being be restored and reinstated.
Scotrail changes hands on April 1, and the Scottish Government has required the new operators to look at the possibility of restoring local services between Edinburgh and Berwick, with two additional stations en route, at East Linton and Reston. Consequently, plans are being laid for a two-hourly frequency of such trains from December 2016.
There are tacit plans for a similar arrangement between Berwick and Newcastle if there is sufficient public demand, to which end the Northumberland Local Plan includes the possibility of reopening Belford station. Once the Scotrail services are established, it would seem sensible to consider achieving the Northumberland plans by extending them to Newcastle. An essential pre-requisite of this will be a much louder sound of support from the potential users of Belford station than is evident just now.
Two major differences in the present situation from that which prevailed 50 years ago, when the local services were in terminal decline, are that local trains on electrified lines are so much cheaper to run than the steam, or even diesel, trains which were used then, and the willingness of the passengers to use the local stations as park-and-ride sites rather than driving on congested roads to the major centres, where parking is ever more difficult and expensive.
The Borders Railway from Edinburgh to Galashiels is due to re-open next September, and already people are making noises about extending it to Hawick and even right through to Carlisle.
There are good reasons why this should happen, and an eastward connection from Galashiels to the East Coast Main Line at Reston or Tweedmouth should also happen.
The furore arising from over-running engineering works at Christmas was symptomatic of the dissatisfaction of rail passengers whenever engineering works disrupt their journeys. Engineering works are inevitable, of course, both for basic maintenance and for carrying out improvements necessary because of the ever increasing demand for rail travel, which is not only from passengers, but also from freight operators, who are having increasing difficulty in finding ‘paths’ for their trains.
The troubles we experience now are partly due to the policy fifty years ago of closing duplicate routes. Replacement buses, which passengers hate, would be unnecessary if the trains could be diverted over lines which no longer exist. The business case for reopening some of them is therefore not wholly dependant on the level of passenger traffic to be expected, but also partly on a line’s value as a freight route and its availability as a diversionary route.
We may therefore expect to see such apparently unpromising routes such as Galashiels to Reston and Galashiels to Tweedmouth being resurrected in the future.
○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 readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Berwick Advertiser office.