Government must retain supervision of rail operators: BRAG

BEXHILL Rail Action Group (BRAG) has hit out at a Department for Transport (DfT) consultation on the future of rail franchising, saying a high level of government supervision of train operators must be maintained.

And the rail action group is demanding that regional services, such as the Brighton to Ashford coastal service, must be protected.

BRAG chairman Hugh Sharp said: “The gist of the consultation document tends towards more relaxed passenger service requirements, with operators having more discretion as to what services they run and the fares they charge.

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“This sounds good in principle but potentially places some rural and secondary services at risk, as well as encouraging over-provision on lucrative routes where there are two competing operators.

“In Sussex we already have the example of the London to Brighton mainline, where two operators, Southern and First Capital Connect, are chasing the same fare pot. Consequently there will be eight trains an hour between London and Brighton from December, but just two combined for the East Sussex Coastway and West Sussex coast stations to Worthing and Littlehampton. These trains attach and divide at Haywards Heath, and are slow and overcrowded in comparison with the Brighton to London services.”

Hugh said that despite representations to Southern Rail the train operator remains un-persuaded as to the merits of improving the Coastway service.

BRAG’s concern is that de-regulation will see this scenario repeated elsewhere.

“Our view is the DfT should have ultimate say over timetables. The experience on the Southeastern franchise has been even worse, with customers on the Hastings to Tunbridge Wells line paying above-inflation fare increases for a number of years to finance improvements elsewhere in the franchise area, and from which they themselves have derived no benefit.”

Another stage of the consultation is whether franchises are to be maintained for longer periods. Hugh says BRAG is not necessarily against this, subject to effective regulation.

“ A lot of time and money is wasted re-branding a franchise every time it changes hands, sometimes as little as every five years. All the trains and stations have to be re-branded as a new operator asserts it corporate identity.

“If franchises are to be for periods of up to 15 years there must be a review mechanism to cover both quality and value for money. Nobody could have foreseen the current economic circumstances 10 years ago, and we don’t know what the state of the economy will be in 2020. It is important that rail travellers are not exploited with ever-rising fares.

“As well as the taxpayer helping out franchises in the hard times, there must also be an opportunity to share in the profits in the good times.”

BRAG also wants to see some consistency in policy towards fare increases.

Hugh said: “The DfT currently uses the higher Retail Price Index (RPI) to calculate fare increases, while the lower Consumer Prices Index (CPI) has been used to calculate increases in wages and pensions.

“This puts a lot of pressure on commuters, and there is a danger that many rail travellers in this area who work in London could be priced out of their jobs in the longer term.”

BRAG’s full response to the consultation can be viewed online at www.bexhillrailaction.org.uk