Train operators face cutback

Move to ease bottlenecks at main London stations
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The Independent Online

Rail chiefs today signalled a major reduction in the number of train companies to improve services at gridlocked stations.

The plan could lead to each big London terminus being served by just one passenger train company.

Capacity problems at Manchester and Birmingham stations are also being looked at by the Strategic Rail Authority.

At present there are 25 train operating companies and some London stations are served by as many as three different operators.

SRA chairman Richard Bowker explained today that train operators said that managing capacity at these bottleneck stations was harder to do when there were so many companies operating there.

As part of the new strategy, the SRA said today that it proposed to create a Greater Anglia franchise from 2004 which would bring together the current franchisees Anglia, Great Eastern and the West Anglia part of West Anglia Great Northern.

These companies all run in and out of London's Liverpool Street - one of the stations the SRA is concerned about.

Mr Bowker said today that another example of a problem station was Paddington in west London, which was currently "saturated" and where, perhaps, a bringing together of suburban and city services could improve reliability and punctuality for passengers.

Mr Bowker would not be drawn on just how many companies would exist in future years.

He said: "We are going to have a much simpler railway with possibly one operator at each of the big termini. We can't deliver that overnight but we will go around and contact all the companies who operate at the big London stations."

Mr Bowker went on: "Liverpool Street station trains are trying to get into the station and the signalman has to have regard for which train belongs to which company and where that particular train has to go. What bonkers is this?"

Mr Bowker's comments came as the SRA kickstarted the refranchising programme for passenger train companies today - the programme having stalled in recent months.

Mr Bowker said that it would be a "horses for courses" approach with some companies being offered short franchises and others longer ones. Where 15 years were being offered, companies would have to meet "challenging but deliverable" performance targets.

Should these not be met, franchises could end after five or 10 years rather than lasting the full term.

The SRA today said it was restarting the new Wales and Borders franchise with a view to announcing a preferred bidder by next autumn with the contract beginning in early 2003.

This franchise includes parts of the current Cardiff Railway, Wales and West and North Western Trains franchises.

Expressions of interest were also invited today for the new Northern and Arriva Trains Merseyside franchises.

Discussions are in hand with the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive and the Department of Transport on the possible future transfer of responsibility for the Merseyside franchise to the PTE.

The Transport Secretary Stephen Byers said today: "I welcome the SRA's revised franchising programme which will deliver short and long-term improvements for the passenger."

He added: "It is realistic and reflects the experiences of passengers. And it strikes a good balance between getting the basics right now and investing for the future.

"As I said last July, early replacement of short-term franchises should go ahead in selected cases where the benefits cannot be obtained in other ways.

"Again, we should be looking for early gains for passengers that will make a real difference as well as substantial long-term investment. I am pleased that the SRA policy announced today reflects this approach."

Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passengers Council, said today's announcement was "an important step on the route towards the safe, reliable, affordable and modern railway we all want".

But he added: "Passengers should not hold their breath - many improvements on the railways take a long time to come to fruition.

"Station improvements, new trains and major track improvements are all very, very welcome but next year promises to be a rocky one for many passengers unless urgent, drastic action it taken to halt the slide in performance we are currently seeing."

Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Don Foster said: "Finally, the franchising process is being used in the interests of the travelling public.

"But there is no sign of a decision to ensure affordability for passengers on the railways.

"Britain's railway fares are amongst the highest in the world and this is a lost opportunity. The SRA's new chairman must deliver a wider range of fares for passengers.

"The SRA must also be more ambitious in exploring vertical integration to bring the track and train back together."