Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

“…he is dead because he had no code, he is dead because he had no honor, and because God was watching.”

Posted in Business, Customer service, Great Britain by Chairman Pip on 26 January 2011

I’ve just got in to some quite sad news. Wrexham & Shropshire, the open access operator that provides services between London, Shrewsbury and North Wales, is to close this coming Friday 28th January, after less than three years operation. This is such a shame, because not only did it provide a direct link to the capital for what is seen as a significant market, but it was also efficient and well liked by the people that used the service – indeed, the 2010 National Passenger Survey run by Passenger Focus gave it a 99% approval rating, the highest ever recorded. Invariably though you will often find that operators that either run over a small section of infrastructure (such as Island Line) or runs only a handful of daily services will be able to focus on the passenger experience much more. And this is the problem, especially for the open-access operators that don’t run masses of trains. We all know that running trains is an expensive business, even more so if you don’t receive any public subsidy, which is the case for open-access operators. So all of their revenue has to come from running trains. And given the fact of the economic climate, plus the (frankly ludicrus) operating restrictions that prevented W&S from stopping at Wolverhampton (and other stations used by Virgin Trains), plus the fact that they only ran a maximum of five trains per day, you can understand why Wrexham & Shropshire was almost on a hiding to nothing. Even when its parent company was taken over by Deutsche Bahn, it seemed that there was little cushion against the weight of recession, hence why it has met its demise.

Wolmar is among several commentators to have written about this today, and his offering is entitled “Demise of Wrexham Shropshire destroys open access“. Now I have the greatest respect for Wolmar; I’ve heard him speak and own a copy of his excellent book The Subterranean Railway, and he has done me the great honour of following me on Twitter. However, I think that he does have a tendency towards overstating on occasion. I personally believe that open-access does have a role to play on Britain’s railways (and indeed potentially on Ireland’s railways, as I’ve commented many times). However, there are obviously caveats that would have to be made to that statement. Given the choked nature of commuter travel, you will never see an open-access commuter operator, as there is simply no space in the timetable for any such operator to be able to run enough trains, even if they were able to procure enough rolling stock. So that leaves us with two types of service that could potentially be available to an open access operator – inter-city services and small rural branch line services. We will see if the latter is feasible with the intended trial on the Mid-Hants Railway (which has now been postponed “until further notice” owing to technical issues with the PPM50 vehicle, and which will doubtless have the naysayers smirking and saying “I told you so”); as I’ve said, operating a light service on a rural route with a lightweight vehicle could be an ideal way of restoring rail services to these communities as it will keep down costs, and so could be good for some kind of local/community partnership scheme to have a go at. The former is what we have already with the two remaining open-access operators, First Hull Trains and Grand Central. However, both of them have seen that expansion is the key to survival – Hull Trains have increased from three trains per day in each direction when they first started to seven per day at the moment, with ambitions for eight per day (allowing a two hourly service in each direction). Grand Central meanwhile now operate over two routes (London-Sunderland and London-Bradford) with a total of seven trains per day in each direction, and is looking to expand further, with more trains to Sunderland and a further new route between London and Blackpool. For an inter-city operator, where costs are proportionally higher, it is vital that revenue is maximised. This perhaps is where government might be able to play a role, first and foremost removing the almost protectionist “moderation of competition” rules that are inserted into franchise agreements. While this may seem almost cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, given that the franchises (supposedly) pay premiums to the government (thus greater competition might see the government losing money), on the flip side greater competition should encourage the franchise holders to improve both their service and their prices to try and ensure they don’t lose business. This is where looking at how Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori end up doing once they start their open-access operations on Italy’s TAV network – NTV intends to start with at least 54 daily trains on three routes, in direct competition with Trenitalia. Direct competition can only be good for the most important people on the railway, the passengers. Otherwise, you get a situation as we have in Ireland, where Iarnród Éireann can provide its present flabby, disjointed service and do what it likes, safe in the knowledge its monopoly is secure and no one else can come in and provide an alternative.

“Wrexham-Shropshire-London direct rail link to end”

The demise of Wrexham & Shropshire needn't spell the beginning of the end for open-access, but competition rules on the railway need to be altered to level the playing field

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