Heaping more misery on fed-up passengers…

HAVING prompted readers to make comments, and just three weeks after the public consultation period ended, the Department for Transport has pulled the plug on one of the most crucial franchise renewals – CrossCountry.

But what happens to those consultation comments? Will they be seen by future prospective franchisees or quietly lost?

By claiming the forthcoming Rail Review was behind the decision, I find it hard to believe cancelling the franchise competition had not been on the DfT’s radar at a far earlier juncture.

At the time the prospectus for CrossCountry was published in July, franchising was already in meltdown, with two franchises in timetable chaos, two others facing financial shortfall, one back in Government control, and industrial disputes wrecking the travel plans of millions. It is questionable why the DfT proceeded.

In 2016, when a three-year direct award was made, there was absolutely nothing of substance for passengers to look forward to – no longer trains, just a measly 150 extra seats per day between Edinburgh and Plymouth.

The failure back then to do something tangible was viewed as a lost opportunity, now by abandoning the process, the DfT has clearly bottled it.

With trains at peak times already full and standing – passengers on some trains have stood from Oxford to Manchester – the delay in re-tendering the franchise means there is no short-term incentive for any extra investment, particularly to alleviate the biggest complaint the franchise faces – overcrowding.

Yet there is rolling stock coming off lease that could, in theory, be utilised. Just a few HSTs would, for example, supplement busy services on the main arteries via Birmingham New Street to good advantage, rather than the trains being placed in store and rotting away.

More than 20 Class 185s will become surplus next year, which could replace the two-car 170s with a one-third increase in seating.

Because no one knows when the CrossCountry franchise will be re-let – it could be anywhere between two and four years from now – passengers are going to have to endure more pain and misery on tired, out-dated, packed and inadequate trains.

They deserve every sympathy.

…as the wait for new trains goes on and on

ONE of the dominant industry news stories of recent years has been the massive orders for new rolling stock. The emerging, but predictable, downside is the problem of getting the new trains in to traffic.

Passengers have been promised jam tomorrow, but of thousands of new vehicles ordered, only the Class 700 and 707 fleets are fully in traffic – and that didn’t happen without problems.

Currently, ScotRail is anxious to get its re-worked HSTs running, ditto the Class 385s.

There are delays to the programme to introduce ‘Flex’ Class 769s, authorisation to begin using Hitachi IETs for GWR and LNER is on hold, new Caledonian Sleeper carriages have been delayed by six months, commuters in North London desperately need the Class 710s, and many more new trains are running late.

Yet from January, passengers will pay increased fares and still won’t have the new trains they’ve been promised.

The reasons are widespread and range from manufacturer and supplier delays and unsuitable components, through to major software problems requiring major rewrites of coding, signal interference issues and, in the case of the HSTs, corrosion repairs that were far more extensive than expected.

Sure, some of the refurbishment is using cutting-edge technology, but throw in the thirst for power that new trains demand from the 25kV overheads north of York, which can’t be fully met, and you begin to get the picture.

With so many fleets of new trains running late, I can’t help wondering whether anyone at all within either Network Rail or the DfT has been managing the overall picture? Or are all of these new fleets being managed in isolation?

To have one fleet late may be regarded as a misfortune, but for multiple fleets to be delayed looks like carelessness, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde.

It also begs the question whether the UK should have built a proper test track several years ago, once orders began ramping up, rather than shuttling up and down a 10-mile track through the rolling Leicestershire countryside. Trying to find 100mph test paths on busy railways is getting more difficult, never mind the cost of testing in eastern Europe.

Through what appears to be inadequate planning and a lack of appreciation of wider industry problems, passengers could be waiting for their much-hyped new trains for some months yet.

Chris Milner, Editor

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