Competing trains?


          The Labour government took a couple of good decisions whilst generally making the railway unaccountable, expensive and  not very friendly to passengers.  They allowed First Hull and Grand Central Railways access to Network Rail’s tracks to act as challengers to the established franchise holder.

          The results have been excellent. First Hull has the highest passenger satisfaction ratings out of all 23 rail operators.  Grand Central has pioneered books of ten tickets, more anytime tickets and cheaper fares.  They have offered direct services to London for cities like Sunderland, Halifax  and Bradford. First Hull provides 14 trains a day between Hull and London ,compared to 1 prior to their challenge. Both companies offer free wifi for all travellers. I have had the chance to read the latest case for open access to train lines and to question  the lobby group that backs it.

        If the challengers  did not provide routes people want to travel and service levels people do not like, these companies would fail. Unlike the franchise holders who have access to  subsidies, the challengers have to provide their own capital and need to sell enough seats to pay the bills.

            More importantly, they provide a check on what the monopoly franchise holder and state  monopoly track owner are telling us about what can be done and what the public want. The successful challenger companies proved that there was spare capacity on the East coast mainline, and they could run services using the slots available to find new passenger demand and service other cities along the route. They showed that the pattern of demand was not just as the franchise holder said, and showed they could innovate on service.

           We need more challenger railway companies and offers. Apparently there is scope for a new fast service to Edinburgh using current track, and more spare capacity on both the east and west coast mainlines. One of the interesting things about our railway is how empty the tracks often are. Of course there needs to be proper safety gaps between trains, but the present gaps are considerably longer in many cases than the prudent safety advice. The task should be to improve what we have got, especially as there is a lot of public money lined up in the non HS2 rail budgets for the years ahead.


  1. margaret brandreth-j
    January 17, 2014

    I wonder what a lot of money lined up for non HS2 money amounts to.
    The problem, as we all know, is not the empty carriages , but the full ones.
    Between 7 -9 mon to fri,it is not pleasant and to avoid these journeys is costly as it means staying in overnight accommodation to get to places on time.
    It is all very well having free Wi Fi , but it is difficult to juggle bags , i pads/phones whilst standing up against other passengers crammed in the small spaces.
    Perhaps the solution is to have more people working from home and flexible working times.

    1. Hope
      January 17, 2014

      This is typical of a tread water and hope strategy by Osborne and Cameron. I have not seen any strategy planned and implemented from beginning to end with success. Where is the big Society now? The economy? Immigration? EU? Spending cuts? Lower taxes?

      Thea strategy to call other people and parties names or smear are apparent but how about the allegations of their (word left out ed) past when in the Bulingdon Club? etc ed

  2. lifelogic
    January 17, 2014

    No too surprising there is capacity on most tracks when train ticketing is so complex and usually very expensive indeed, unless you book years in advance and fix which train you catch. Which is rarely practical and expensive anyway if you have to change plans.

    The main advantage of trains over planes used to be flexibility, if you missed the 5.00pm you could catch the 5.45pm but no longer it seems without paying double.

    Competition and some intelligent regulation, from honest & intelligent regulators rather than people too friendly with the franchise holders is what is needed.

    But alway bear in mind trains are inherently less efficient than cars, coaches, mini buses etc. especially in the small UK. This as they do not go door to door, they lengthen journeys with (often double journey) connections at each end, they have complex ticketing, limit your times of travel and flexibility of travel, use more fuel per useful mile door to door, need a dedicated & high maintenance track and large staff and come to a stand still if one tree falls down, it rains too much on the banks, the unions strike, it is Christmas, or the trains or signals fail.

    1. lifelogic
      January 17, 2014

      Parking at the station is very expensive and with a risks of a damaged or stolen vehicle on your return, as was my experience on more than one occasion.

      Then you have those endless & annoying announcements to contend with, etc ed

    2. Jennifer A
      January 17, 2014

      Oh. I really want to be travelling on a train on Christmas day.

      Lifelogic – are you one of those who demands that shops, cafes, pubs, hotels, restaurants be open on Christmas day ? Everyone working normally except yourself perhaps ?

      I’m sure there are those poor souls in retail and hospitality who consider themselves lucky to be able to earn double their minimum wage for a few hours – and more who consider their jobs to be at risk if they refuse.

      You’re not one of them I trust.

      The amount of places people expect to be open on Christmas day it’s a wonder we don’t scrap it altogether.

      1. lifelogic
        January 17, 2014

        I am merely making the point that trains on certain holiday dates, off peak times, in the evening and nights, many routes, strike days, snowy days, flood days and windy days are often not very much use. A car, van, motorbike, truck and coach can be far more flexible and cheaper. That is why they are so much more popular and so much cheaper, this despite the idiotic government tax and subsidy anti-road slant.

      2. Edward2
        January 17, 2014

        Jennifer A
        There are millions of people in our multi-cultural society who do not celebrate Christmas and would be happy to work or to have somewhere open to go to and enjoy their day.

      3. bigneil
        January 17, 2014

        surprised the non Christian asylum seekers haven’t sued the govt yet – for getting out of the lorry and not been able to put their claim in on the 25th dec.

        after all we are keeping a known criminal who we “cannot deport” – -because we don’t know his proper name -age – or what nationality he is – -unbelievable – so the general public are now at risk again – and the govt wonders why we don’t want to vote for them .

    3. Bazman
      January 18, 2014

      Then explain why railway travel is growing every year despite all this and the high ticket prices? It is not possible to commute long distance via road a point you choose to ignore. How much parking would be needed in London and how clogged would the roads be in London with the commuter trains and the tube. The journey would be impossible and the idea that trains are less efficient than cars is a figment of you imagination. You have no proof other than you mindless idea.

      1. Edward2
        January 18, 2014

        All travel is growing Baz not just rail.
        Its mainly due to the huge growth in population over the last few years.

  3. Old Albion
    January 17, 2014

    The railway network in England should be re-nationalised.

    1. Robert Taggart
      January 17, 2014

      It has been !…
      Network Rail – a ‘private’ company limited by guarantee (Government / Taxpayer) – has finally had its debts added to the Governments books.
      We have the EU to thank for this !

      reply I thought it was my lobbying which helped get this on the government’s books!

      1. Robert Taggart
        January 17, 2014

        Nice one Johnny – credit where credit be due !

    2. Alan Wheatley
      January 17, 2014

      Old remedies for Old Albion, eh!

      Remember, the railways came into existence as a result of private initiative and funding.

      The railways reached their peak at the end of the 19th century, and since have been in decline as other forms of transport became available.

      Railways declined markedly under nationalisation. Initiative such as Freightliner and APT, got nowhere due to inadequate management of one form or another.

      The railways have had a bit of a renaissance since privatisation, which rather goes to prove that the nationalised railways failed to exploit the potential.

      1. Anonymous
        January 17, 2014

        A petrol and housing crisis helped with that renaissance, Mr Wheately.


        Mr Redwood

        The railways has an acute shortage of rolling stock in many parts. This needs to be addressed in order to be able to maximise the slots.

      2. Lifelogic
        January 18, 2014

        Nationalised anything will nearly always fail to exploit potential. Other than perhaps the potential for high pay and good pensions and unfair competition for the private sector, while delivering little of value.

        1. Bazman
          January 18, 2014

          Then you can explain why the East Coast Mainline has been run by the public sector handing back 600 million to the taxpayer and wht the Tories want to renationalise it?
          Privately owned utilities and a banking system hardly provide good service do they and remind us again who gets high pay and pensions with massive bonuses to boot for failure. You just come out with this don’t you?

          1. Mark
            January 20, 2014

            East Coast have been getting 0.5p per passenger mile in net subsidy:


  4. Andyvan
    January 17, 2014

    What we need is an end to public subsidy of a rail network that, if it provided services that people want at a price that was competitive, would not need to be kept afloat by stealing taxes from people who may never get on a train. Why should I, who lives in a large town with no railway station contribute towards other peoples traveling expenses? Rail subsidies allow people to commute large distances to work and so distort housing markets and jobs markets. A free market for transportation would mean that the most cost effective solutions would be found, instead we have enormous sums pumped into an antiquated and decrepit rail network that epitomizes state run enterprises. Still I suppose the latest white elephant, HS2, will be a shining beacon of government planning and a huge financial success? Or not.

    1. uanime5
      January 17, 2014

      What we need is an end to public subsidy of a rail network that, if it provided services that people want at a price that was competitive, would not need to be kept afloat by stealing taxes from people who may never get on a train.

      All your plan will do is turn a functions rail network into one that can only be used by a few people living in a few areas.

      A free market for transportation would mean that the most cost effective solutions would be found, instead we have enormous sums pumped into an antiquated and decrepit rail network that epitomizes state run enterprises.

      A free market solution would be railways that only the wealthy could afford to use. Something that would be very bad for the UK.

    2. bigneil
      January 17, 2014

      my money is on the “or not” version

  5. alan jutson
    January 17, 2014

    Do not use the trains much other than the Wokingham – Gatwick line which seems very good, and perhaps for the occassional trip into London when going to the theatre.

    But then being retired I do not have to travel at peak hours or go into London for work/business on a daily basis.

    One of my Daughters uses the train every day to go to work, and I am informed that fares keep on rising, and it is quite normal for trains to run late, or even be cancelled completely, she can find this out via an Ap on her phone which makes life a little more bearable, as she then adjusts the time she arrives at the station, rather than simply stand waiting on the platform.

    Anything that makes travel more flexible, less costly, but retains safety standards is surely to be welcomed.

    Speed, yes of course is important to a degree, but how much are you going to save on a 20-30 mile journey, ease of interconnectivity with timetables is surely one of the the keys to more efficient running.

    As far as HS2 is concerned, I have yet to see any real case for it, far better to spread the money throughout the whole country and make many improvements to many lines, rather than just one.

    1. Bob
      January 17, 2014

      @Alan Jutson

      As far as HS2 is concerned, I have yet to see any real case for it, far better to spread the money throughout the whole country and make many improvements to many lines, rather than just one.


      The route will directly affect 33 ancient woods. And depending on the final route, track specifications (the width of which varies between 25m and 60m) and location of stations there could be an additional negative impact on further ancient woods.
      HS2 should not be built at the expense of our natural heritage.

      1. lifelogic
        January 17, 2014

        Can anyone, but people with a vested interest, see any merit in HS2? They would surely have to be innumerate or perhaps just bonkers.

  6. Mike Stallard
    January 17, 2014

    “The Labour government took a couple of good decisions ”

    One of the most encouraging things I have heard for a very long time.

  7. Frank H Little
    January 17, 2014

    It’s a pity that open access operator Wrexham & Shropshire was allowed to fail. (link removed that did not work)

  8. Robert K
    January 17, 2014

    Fascinating! Many thanks for this insight.

  9. A.Sedgwick
    January 17, 2014

    There are similarities to improving “British Rail” with NHS inasmuch as throwing money at the problems is not the ultimate solution. Your examples of free enterprise shows what can be done. Buying, yes a customer buying a ticket, for a rail trip is a financial penalty minefield with a legion of jobsworths ready to pounce.

  10. Iain Gill
    January 17, 2014

    “unaccountable, expensive and not very friendly” oh I thought you were talking about the NHS and state schools.

  11. Chris S
    January 17, 2014

    Now the reasoning behind HS2 has swung towards the need for more capacity since the argument in favour of time saved was shown to be false, it would be nice to have straight answers to two questions :

    1. If, like Heathrow, the existing North-South lines were run at 95% capacity by closing
    the gap between trains to the safe minimum, how much extra capacity will that give us ?

    2. Why have we not had a cost /benefit analysis for lowering track beds the small amount
    required to allow double decker passenger trains as used almost everywhere else in
    Europe ? This would benefit goods traffic as the larger shipping containers now used
    can’t be carried on many lines because of their height. The track bed in the tunnel
    under Southampton had to be lowered to cater for them.

    Reply The last oral advice I received from railway sources was that the average gap between trains is currently more than 2 minutes, whereas the safe level is 90 seconds. If all such train pathways could be used that implies a 33% uplift.

    1. Anonymous
      January 17, 2014

      Reply to reply: And/or run busy trains with more carriages on them. BR used to run 15 coach services – Eurostar 18 !

  12. Bert Young
    January 17, 2014

    An integrated rail network properly managed and controlled is what the country needs . I do not use rail as a means of transport because of its expense and unnecessary ticket complications . Of course there will be segments of the present system that are more profitable and efficient than others ; creating something equally good on a national basis is a different kettle of fish . HS2 is a piecemeal mistake and a digression in the overall approach .

  13. oldtimer
    January 17, 2014

    Interesting. I was unfamiliar with the idea of allowing unsubsidised competition on the network. It seems worthwhile to develop it further. The risk to those who venture down this track are the actions that might be taken by those operators who benefit from their subsidies to frustrate access to the network. It would be helpful to know the reasons why the Wrexam and Shropshire initiative failed (mentioned above in another post). Was it just down to misjudgment of the market or were a few tripwires placed in the way?

  14. John E
    January 17, 2014

    There are countries on the Continent where rail fares are proportional to the distance travelled. How backward these EU folk are.

  15. Bill
    January 17, 2014

    I regularly use Hull Trains and think they are a good company offering a comfortable service. One of the things that can hinder them is that the East Coast service, which is a larger competing company, appears to take precedence if there is any sort of delay or vandalism – presumably because East Coast goes all the way up to Edinburgh.

    I would like to see Hull Trains able to get its trains through if East Coast is delayed. The trouble, of course, is that both use the same track so that if an East Coast train is not punctual that seems to have a knock-on effect to other companies.

  16. Atlas
    January 17, 2014

    An informative posting John.

  17. StrongholdBarricades
    January 17, 2014

    Please, someone introduce some competition for Virgin on the West Coast

  18. Robert Taggart
    January 17, 2014

    Perhaps we can have competition, but, the restrictions on such will need abolishing first…
    Virgin on the ridiculous West Coast has been protected from competition ever since it came into being – Moderation of Competition rules prevented many suggested newcomers from starting up. This ‘moderation’ was only allowed in order to give Virgin on the ridiculous time to establish their new trains – Pendolinos – on the upgraded ‘WC’ Main Line.
    Methinks they have had an easy ride for long enough. Time to ‘flush’ them out !

    Reply Richard Branson has been a very keen advocate of competition in airlines where he runs one of the challenger companies to BA, and a keen advocate of sharing slots.

  19. Martyn G
    January 17, 2014

    First Hull provides a good service which pleases customers because it is incentivised to make money, which can only be done by efficiency, sound cost control and providing their customers with a good service that people like.
    On the other hand, the hundreds of subsidised quangos and in this case rail franchise operators, all reliant on taxpayer money have no real incentive to be efficient or to control costs. Which too often means they care little for the customer.

    Nothing will change unless and until their subsidies are removed or, in the case of dozens of inflammable quangos (remember ‘the bonfire of quangos’?) are actually disbanded instead of simply changing their name and carrying on as before.

  20. BobE
    January 17, 2014

    When a truck comes throught the channel tunnel, it is unloaded only to drive to and then around the M25. Why not organise it so the trucks can stay on the train for longer. A truck hub just north of London for both directions, to and from the tunnel. Then run truck carrying lines to the north and west.

    1. bigneil
      January 17, 2014

      your idea could have had major help today (Friday) -as a smash on the M1 near j28 closed the motorway for hours – -CHAOS – the roads round chesterfield for miles were basically gridlocked – if the lories had been on the train system -able to drive on/off so no unload reload etc – possibly it would have been far less manic that it was.

      whereas the HS2 would just get a few rich people around from A-B , cost a fortune -and destroy loads of land.

  21. Mike Wilson
    January 17, 2014

    Mr. Redwood – any idea why the level crossing on the Easthampstead Road comes down between 2 and 3 minutes before a train comes. At certain times of the day, this causes long traffic jams as trains due to pass the level crossing about 5 minutes apart can cause the barriers to be down for 7 to 8 minutes.

    If the nutcases who run the railways operated the same policy on the myriad roads in South West London that have level crossings (that are on the various lines into Waterloo) – the barriers would be permanently down in the rush hour as a train goes through the stations a few miles from Waterloo every couple of minutes.

    Reply They claim they need to close the road for such long periods for safety reasons. I have tried to get them to reconsider but they are adamant.

    1. matthu
      January 17, 2014

      It is difficult to reconcile that excuse of safety reasons with the fact that the barrier at Waterloo Road, less than half a mile up the road and crossing the same railway line, is usually open at the same time that Easthampstead Road is closed. So if you are driving southwards away from Wokingham and you arrive just as the barrier is going down, it can often be quicker to divert to the Waterloo Road crossing … no need to exceed the speed limit.

  22. uanime5
    January 17, 2014

    If the challengers did not provide routes people want to travel and service levels people do not like, these companies would fail.

    As long as people have no other way to get to work or school they will have to use these services even if they don’t like them.

    In order for these to be competition there needs to be a reasonable alternative to these services.

    1. Edward2
      January 18, 2014

      There is a reasonable alternative Uni, in the form of buses, coaches, cars, bikes and on some journeys even planes.
      Had you not noticed?

  23. Lindsay McDougall
    January 17, 2014

    The John Major privatisation gave rise to 4 types of overhead costs (1) charges by banks and others for leasing trains to TOCs and FOCs (2) Consultants’ charges for preparing franchise bid documents and evaluating responses (3) Lawyers’ fees in drawing up franchise contracts (4) Ministry of Transport administration costs.

    While I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that vertically integrated, privately owned, regional rail monopolies are the best way to go (competition coming from car, bus, air and road haulage), they are unlikely to happen soon.

    An improvement over the current system would be to get rid to the leasing companies and to allow TOCs and FOCs to own their own rolling stock. To match this, the franchise system (at least franchises of short duration) would have to go. Network Rail would sell individual train paths to the highest bidder and would have to manage the scheduling. Are they up for it and up to it?

    1. Anonymous
      January 18, 2014

      Excellent comment, Lindsay

      The competition should not come from within the railway. There should be competition and there should be privatization – in the form that you describe.

      On those regions crews could be interchangeable instead of working for separate companies, unable to work all routes and all train types in those areas.

      Also we need trains which are compatible with each other – that can be formed up into longer ones or able to assist each other with matching couplings where there are breakdowns.

      Competing on a limited pathway with few overtaking points is not what we need. We need co-operation on our rail network rather than tit-for-tat delay claims and obstructiveness between rival firms.

      The competition should be from road and air, not the train in front.

  24. Max Dunbar
    January 17, 2014

    If the SNP get their way and Scotland becomes a foreign country, how would border controls operate on the railways? This assuming that the SNP open doors immigration plans necessitate a physical barrier. However, if the seperatists adopted the old Russian rail guage perhaps this would not be an issue.

    1. Martin
      January 18, 2014

      Pre- Schengen there was designated border station where the border police would come on and check passports.

      Incidentally we sometimes have this on Eurostar where sometimes the passports are checked by the UK at Gare-Du-Nord and vice-versa.

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