Ben Blackburn, Account Director at Freshwater, reports from London on the latest discussions around rail in the UK Parliament
Rail has featured prominently in parliament recently, with three announcements from the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling: on HS2 and the Crewe Hub; on third-party investment in rail infrastructure encouraging private investment in a southern rail link to Heathrow; and on the new West Coast Partnership, its operation of HS2 services and the potential for track and train to be integrated and overseen by a single organisation.
But, hidden in more mundane parliamentary questions and answers, there are some particularly thorny issues, discussion of which the Department might prefer to restrict to Great Minster House.
One of these is a neat illustration of how the mixed economy of the present franchising model, with government inputs written into franchise specifications while outputs and solutions are to be delivered by the market, can create unintended consequences.
The 1976-vintage and beloved InterCity 125 HST (High Speed Train), still the fastest diesel train in the world, has been operating on the Midland Main Line (MML) for 35 years, since May 1983. The sets are reaching the end of their life with the franchise and, in the absence of electrification, are slated for replacement in the next franchise period by a new fleet of bi-modes due to enter service in 2022.
So far, so good and all in keeping with the government’s encouragement of franchises to drive performance and customer satisfaction through new rolling stock.
So, while the HSTs are being replaced, they will continue on the Midland Main Line for another five years. Or will they?
The problem is one that the Shadow Secretary of State, Andy McDonald, has latched onto. As his two written questions, on March 16 and 22 infer, the HSTs will not be compliant with the ‘technical specification for interoperability for persons with reduced mobility’ (PRM-TSI), a European standard which came into force on July 1 2008 for heavy rail operation and which the government has been working towards ever since.
The government’s objective is to achieve an accessible rail fleet by January 1 2020. The official count, last published in January, shows that 10,240 heavy rail passenger vehicles (78 per cent of the fleet) have been made compliant, but indications are that, whilst sets are being modified for reuse elsewhere (most notably in Scotland, where they will be used to upgrade Scotland’s key domestic inter-urban services to true ‘InterCity’ standards), the Midlands’ HSTs are not destined to join them.
As Mr McDonald leads us to ask, what is going to fill the gap between the demise of MML HSTs by December 31 2019, and a shiny new fleet which, it is hoped, will arrive two-and-a-bit years later but has not yet been procured?
This situation leaves both the DfT and the next operator open to risk and reputational damage when the new franchise starts in August 2019.
Responding to Mr McDonald’s probes, the Rail Minister, Jo Johnson, explained that the department was working with East Midlands Trains to understand the options and indicative costs. Nusrat Ghani, the Minister with responsibility for passenger accessibility, explained that, while ‘no decisions had been taken’, the operator is working with rolling stock companies to develop different solutions and ‘once the industry has developed a preferred solution, it will be considered by the Department’.
To provide some context, Mr Johnson explained that two thirds of sets on the East Midlands line are not HSTs, but, as it is apparent that the mission to secure a solution for the remaining one third is still in its early stages, this may not be a comfort to the people of Nottingham who rely on HSTs for around half of their services to and from London.
It will be interesting to see how this situation develops. Ongoing uncertainty would fan the flames of customers’ worry, but the challenge of filling the shortfall also represents a valuable opportunity for the industry and the government to show how it can work together to come up with an effective solution to protect, and perhaps even enhance, services.
Freshwater is a full-service communications agency with over a decade’s experience in the rail sector