Rail Professional spoke to Councillor Andrew Leadbetter, chair of the Peninsula Rail Task Force about keeping the issues that the South West rail network faces at the top of the government’s agenda…

Tell us about the Peninsula Rail Task Force. Who are you and what do you do?

After our rail network was compromised by severe weather damage in 2012, the Task Force was formed, coming together to consider the future of the South West rail network.  We are a partnership of the five local authorities and two Local Enterprise Partnerships from across Cornwall, Devon, Plymouth, Torbay and Somerset. In 2014 we were given a government commission to develop a rail investment plan for the South West, which we published in November 2016. Our report Closing the Gap is the result of that work. It is a blueprint for investment into the South West strategic rail network over the next 20 years to deliver a future -proofed rail network with reliable, high quality services.

So, what is the problem with the South West rail network?

We chose the title Closing the Gap as the South West has suffered from years of historic underinvestment into our rail network. The cost per head spent on railways is £35 in the South West compared with the £97 average spent in other regions. It has resulted in a vulnerable and under-developed network, which has the potential to damage future growth.

The collapse of the main line at Dawlish, flooding of the Somerset Levels and closure of Cowley Bridge, Exeter in 2014 was devastating for the peninsula. It is estimated to have cost us in the region of £1.2 billion. The situation will get worse; a major closure of the seawall is predicted to be once in every four years by 2065 if nothing is done.  Cowley Bridge flooded again last year, one of several locations on the South West network, ironically coinciding with the launch of our report, forcing many members of the Task Force to drive to London to present the plan to MP’s.

On our network, the average journey speed is 69mph to London compared with 90mph on other mainlines. It is only likely to get worse with HS2 and hamper our performance further. Studies have also shown that productivity also falls by six per cent every 100 minutes from London. It takes three hours 22 minutes to travel the 225 miles from Plymouth to London compared to Newcastle to London, which is 268 miles but only takes three hours nine minutes.

We also have more passengers using our rail network year upon year; passenger numbers have grown by 133 per cent since 1995: twice the national average and growth on the main line has matched that of the West and East Coast lines without the same levels of investment. The last major investment into our rail network was in 1976 with the introduction of the HST train fleet, which still runs today. We do have the new AT300 trains coming in 2018 but the local trains serving our branch lines will still remain the same.

What is your vision for the South West railway?

Our ultimate vision is for the peninsula to be served with reliable, high quality, comfortable services that everyone can access. We want to see step changes in the journey experience from the point that a decision is made to travel by rail, to information, ticketing, parking and station facilities. On the train we want people to be able to work effectively or be able to relax in comfort. We know this will not be achieved over night, so we have set out short, medium and long terms aims in our blueprint towards our vision.

The government funded the reinstatement of Dawlish in 2014, what else is needed to improve resilience and reliability?

Resilience and reliability are our immediate priorities: passengers need to be secure in the knowledge that their train will turn up and be on time – fewer than 50 per cent of our long distance trains arrive on time. Yes, the government did fund reinstatement of Dawlish sea wall but the effects of climate change means it is predicted to happen again soon if nothing is done.  Aside from extreme weather events, we have lost CrossCountry services on more than 40 occasions in 2016 due to sea spray; we need trains that work in all weathers.  It is also not just the line at Dawlish and Teignmouth that is vulnerable, Cowley Bridge is prone to flooding and the government has committed some of the funding but the works are yet to be completed and the disruption caused by flooding to the network in Somerset, Bristol and Bath last November underlined the scale of the problem.

Taking a longer-term view our passengers need options should our main rail line be disrupted. An upgraded diversionary route between Exeter and Castle Cary will allow both London and local services to share the line. Improved resilience can support and complement programmes such as the Somerset Levels Flood Action Plan.

How do you see journey times being reduced?

A new fleet of AT300 trains are due into service in December 2018 and this is expected to reduce journey times between London and Penzance by up to 14 minutes. This is a start towards our long-term goal of reducing journey times between London and Penzance by up to 38 minutes. We have identified that this can be achieved through a combination of timetable changes, infrastructure developments and the creation of a more integrated transport system. Our plans could see a saving in journey time by 2019 of up to 24 minutes and by 2029 of up to 38 minutes to Penzance from London.

Can you briefly describe how your plan addresses increasing comfort and capacity? 

We need more network capacity and train seats to address increasing passenger numbers. We are working with Network Rail and the operators to understand the best ways to do this, including a study Speed to the West, and we are also conscious that Network Rails plans are also evolving all the time. Over time the phased reinstatement of a ‘Northern Route’ from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock, upgrades to the Exeter and Waterloo line and an additional line at Dawlish will deliver the capacity needed to serve the peninsula.

By improving Wi-Fi and mobile signal connectivity, upgrading customer facilities both on board and in stations including streaming media and introducing on-board entertainment everyone will be able to travel in comfort. We want to see innovation and step changes in customer experience and facilities through the new franchises. Business will benefit from a working office and other passengers including visitors will have a positive passenger experience.

As a premier tourist destination, high-quality transport services are essential. Visitor spend is worth £8.63 billion per year to our economy and a great passenger experience plays a huge role in encouraging repeat visits.

So, how much will it cost to deliver your plan?

In addition to the £392 million already committed by the industry and stakeholders, our short term aims will cost £331 million and our medium term aims will cost £2.3 billion. The Task Force would expect the railway industry to work to minimise cost and maximise benefits through innovation and collaboration.

£2.3 billion is a lot of money when the government is under funding pressure, how do you expect to fund all of the projects?

The Task Force do not expect our rail network to be transformed overnight; it is a long-term view of improvements needed over the next 20 years. We would expect the plan to be delivered through incremental changes. We also do not expect the government to fund the entire blueprint, while we are still urging government to commit funding we are also looking into other funding streams such as private investment, grants, match funding and refranchising.

Without investment, the South West will fall further behind. Local authorities have invested £68 million since 2000 into funding studies and infrastructure improvements to the network. That said, the amount of investment needed to future-proof the network after years of underinvestment is too big for Local Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships to manage alone.

What will these improvements mean for the South West? 

Our business case demonstrates that with investment, our economy will not only be safeguarded but has the potential to grow by over £7.2 billion in the coming years, with direct transport benefits of £1.8 billion.

Rail connectivity is crucial to our businesses; our blueprint revealed that 75 per cent of South West businesses consider rail is vital to their trade and operations. With an improved rail network, companies will be able to operate more effectively, people will be able to commute further, there will be better access for investors and education opportunities will be more accessible. The result will be more jobs, improved skills, higher salaries and increased productivity. 50 per cent of businesses in the South West are classed as innovative currently but it is time to capitalise on this.

It is not all about business either. Our communities deserve a rail network that works for them. One in five people living in Devon do not own a car and given the dispersed nature of our towns and cities, the rail network is vital for travel both within and outside of the region. With new communities developing in the north of the peninsula, regional connectivity to places like Bristol will also be key in supporting the growth of these communities.

Will there be any wider benefits?

Our productivity was ranked as 8th out of 12 UK regions in 2014 and the average GVA in Torbay is just £15,500 compared to the national UK average of £24,600. By improving our rail connectivity, the boost to our economy will mean the South West will be able to compete on a national basis and contribute more to UK PLC.

Our plans are not just for better connections with London. We want to access and be accessible to international transport hubs such as Gatwick and Heathrow, and other areas of the UK including the Midlands and the north.

If trains are more reliable, provide value for money and meet travel needs, people will opt to use trains instead of cars. This modal shift will benefit the environment and improve air quality by reducing congestion and delays on the local and strategic road networks.

How much support do you have for this?

There has been strong political support for improving the South West rail network long before the formation of the Task Force. It is a historic issue and one Members of Parliament both past and present from across the peninsula have continually pressed government about. Today, we are fortunate to be supported by the All-Party-Parliamentary Group for South West Rail, a group of Members and Peers who support the Task Force campaign.

We worked closely with the Department for Transport, Network Rail, Great Western Railway, Cross Country, South West Trains and stakeholders to produce Closing the Gap. Without the support of our key partners we would not have been able to get to where we are now. Our work was supported by Local Authority plans and our businesses and communities have also come together to support the Task Force through our stakeholder group.

Speaking with one voice is not an easy task when we are so widely dispersed across the peninsula. While we know that not everyone will support the finer details of our blueprint, we have achieved a strong unified voice throughout our work to date, one that agrees that the South West rail network needs improvements to unlock our potential.

Have you made any progress with your requests yet? There weren’t any funding announcements in the March budget, so does this mean government is not committed to your cause?

We met with the rail minister, Paul Maynard, in February this year and with Chris Grayling in March. Both were supportive of our 20 year plan but told the Task Force not to expect an announcement in the budget. Paul Maynard was hopeful that decisions on rail infrastructure would be announced later on this year as part of Network Rail’s CP6 programme and the submissions very much include PRTF asks.

The government has also made several announcements since the Task Force formed. The South West will be benefiting from the new AT300 trains due into service in December 2018. We already have funding for phase one of the Cowley Bridge flood protection works. Funding was also announced last year for Network Rail to advance the absolutely critical resilience options for the Dawlish sea wall and Teignmouth cliffs. Very recently the government also awarded the South Western franchise to First MTR South Western Trains. At this stage it is too early to comment on the finer details of the franchise but the Task Force welcomes this announcement as long as the new franchise provides better connectivity and value for money for customers.

What is next?

We are liaising with the Department for Transport on the Great Western Railway and Cross County franchise renewals. We expect to be a major contributor to the refranchising process and will work with the Department for Transport to drive a whole route improvement plan.

We will continue to keep the pressure on the government for CP6 funding. So while our meeting with the rail minister was positive, we must keep the issues that the South West rail network faces at the top of the government’s agenda.